Recently, I’ve had several conversations with peers about how difficult it is to interact with people on the opposite side of controversial issues such as politics, religion, and race relations. The things that we feel passionately about that, when someone else challenges, really gets the blood pumping. What I’ve told my friends is this – practice being a therapist. 

As a therapist, we have the unique experience of sitting across from people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, religions–you name it–on a regular basis. We don’t have much of a choice on who we treat when it comes to personal beliefs. Many times, there are people who vehemently express values that directly contradict my own. The hard part is that we are often advised not to give our opinions or advice.

Rather, the priority is on the other person in the room with you. When it comes down to it, we all want to feel heard, understood, and assured that we aren’t being judged we develop empathy. In that process, I’ve found that it becomes easier to have those hard conversations, keep relationships, and minimize the resentment and frustration you feel toward others. Impossible, you say? Try these basic tips to effective communication and see for yourself.

Summarize What They’re Saying

If it’s one of those things you really care about, I bet you have a lot to say about it. Which means the person you’re talking to probably does as well. It can feel like a lot and it’s so easy to dismiss everything they said and launch right into your carefully-crafted argument once it’s your turn to speak (and sometimes before). Instead, try digesting and giving them back the main points of their message in your own words. This helps you to really listen to what they’re saying and, in turn, shows them that you respect them enough to hear and understand their point of view. This more often than not keeps the conversation from escalating out of control and puts the other person in a better place to then respond to you.

Pick Out a Truth

Whether you’re debating the existence of a God or trying to decide which local Mexican restaurant is best, it’s so easy to want to instantly refute whatever that person may have to say. Maybe you’re keeping a running tally in your head of all the reasons you think that they’re wrong. Building your counterargument to each point they’ve brought up like a prosecutor at trial. How does that go when you immediately tell someone how you think they’re wrong? How about when someone does that to you? Here’s an example:

  • My husband: “Red Iguana is the best Mexican food in Utah. Everybody says so. They’ve even been on the Food network.”
  • What I want to say: “It’s so overrated!! Come to California and I’ll show you the good stuff.”
  • A more effective option: “They seem to have won a lot of awards and gained national recognition. That must mean something.”

When we find a truth in what the other person is saying, it helps to eliminate the black and white dichotomy that we sometimes feel with others on these topics and see the gray area that we more often than not are both inhabiting. Maybe you even agree on something! It also continues to disarm the other person as they see that you are willing to see their side, which in turns makes them more likely to do the same for you.

Find the Emotion

These conversations are often waist-deep in emotion. When I start to hear that emotion, it’s surprising how effective it can be to tentatively offer, “that sounds really frustrating to you” or, “that seems to really have hurt you.” I’ve found that when we identify the emotion that the other individual may be feeling, they again feel more understood and it often invites further elaboration. Offering tentatively also gives the other person the opportunity to correct you and give their actual emotion instead. Or maybe they didn’t realize the emotion that is coming up and you have helped them gain some insight. A good follow-up question might be, “what about ________ makes you feel that way?”

Practice these tips with some friends or loved ones. Start with more innocuous topics and see if you can build up to the more contentious ones. One option I sometimes suggest is practicing in public settings, like a restaurant, where you’re less likely to get into a shouting match. As far as how to best share our own responses and thoughts, that’s a blog post for another day.