Beyond Small Talk

How to Talk to Someone Whose Opinions You Can’t Stand

Illustration: Dan Woodger

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

EEveryone knows one: the person who loves to rehash recent elections when all you want is the gravy boat passed to you; who offers their “expert” opinion (gleaned from a single, stupid source) on the subject in which you earned your PhD; who refers to the candidate you just spent six months canvassing for by the most offensive nickname the pundits have summoned. And somehow, they’re always the loudest one in the room. We ache to lash out at them, to shout about the latest abuses, or to predict vindication at the polls. But we know that the only possible result is our own renewed agitation. The political landscape is ugly and likely getting worse; our personal lives don’t need to match.

Now look, I’m a pop culture historian, an author, and a professor, and I’m very active in local politics. I am the last person to suggest we avoid hard conversations. But I’ve learned over the past 41 years or so that there’s a time and place for a serious debate — and it’s not at a social setting with children and red wine present.

Even when we find ourselves face to face with someone whose opinions we cannot stand, we have to figure out how to talk. It’s okay if we talk about the weather. About the new Instant Pot. About whether anyone really likes red delicious apples. There is a stigma to the surface level, but the surface gives us a place to start.

Now, let’s get real. What happens when everyone’s best intentions break down, and talk of a TV show or the weather or our children or sports gives way to talk of impeachment? How do we handle ourselves in a fashion that doesn’t leave us feeling soiled?

Lead with values

Julie Fisher-Rowe is the director of training and engagement for the Opportunity Agenda, which seeks to use the power of narratives to achieve social and policy change. She suggests leading with values. What that means is reorienting the conversation so that instead of arguing, say, about the treatment of children at the border, we raise the question of how we want our country to treat people and prompt a discussion on what the best means of achieving that goal might be.

Our first inclination may be to overwhelm our sparring partner with facts, but Fisher-Rowe says this tactic is counterproductive. “We don’t really make decisions based on facts. We tend to make decisions based on the stories that are already going on in our heads,” she says. “A lot of times when we give people facts that disagree with the story they already have in their heads, they will reject your facts.”

Listen like a pro

Instead, an advanced form of listening helps our conversational partners feel heard. Longtime collaborative lawyer and mediator Lori Goldstein, who works regularly with divorcing couples, suggests using the language of concerns and proposed solutions to keep the conversation on an even keel. “I see people back off of their position when they feel acknowledged,” said Goldstein. “You’ve acknowledged what I’m saying, respectfully, so now I can back down from lashing out and reacting and attacking, and I can maybe respond on that level as well.” Goldstein suggests that when tempers flare, everybody take a break and retreat to separate corners; giving people a chance to vent on their own may help calm a situation down.

Ask good questions

It might be helpful, too, to think of yourself as a journalist and your conversation as an impromptu interview with an intriguing source. “Ask intelligent questions. Try to really understand where the other person is coming from,” suggests psychologist Jennifer Kunst in a 2016 Psychology Today article about political dialogue. “Approach the conversation with an expectation that you might learn something that would help you more fully understand a complex situation.” Journalist mode can free you from the nagging desire to “win” a conversation, which is both unlikely and counterproductive. Stay in character, and remember that as a journalist, you are there to take notes and understand someone else’s concerns.

Remember there’s a time and place

It’s great to feel deeply about politics. It means we’re paying attention and that we care about our world. Our consciences are speaking to us and demanding that we find a way to translate our most profound values into tangible form. But it is worth acknowledging that getting into a fistfight with your Uncle Frank is unlikely to result in changing his mind.

If you want to get involved in political activism, great! (Call me.) But your cousin’s dining room is not the place to win the hearts and minds of a generation. “Even though I have one point of view, to yell and scream my point of view when somebody has another point of view, I’m not going to convince them — ever,” said Goldstein. So take that energy and deploy it where it’s useful: calling your elected officials, protesting, or raising money for valuable causes.

Having a genuine conversation takes listening, and listening takes really wanting to hear what the other person is saying. Listening does not have to mean agreeing, and—to be sure—it may occasionally require correcting the record or steering the conversation in a more profitable, or less hateful, direction.

But you can also treat your conversation with your ideological rivals as an opportunity to learn. You may not be able to change our country’s political situation, but you will undoubtedly learn a great deal about how others perceive that situation.

And if all else fails, talk about Succession.

Author of Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era +4 more. Work published in the NY Times and many others. Teacher at NYU.

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