How to Talk with Anyone About Anything (Even Politics)


Two Old White Men Threaten to Beat Each Other Up

Can you believe the ridiculous interchange that happened recently between Joe Biden and Donald Trump? Whatever your political leaning, you’ve got to admit they didn’t set a good example for the rest of us. In a speech, Biden made this comment: “They asked me if I would like to debate this gentleman (meaning Donald Trump) and I said no. I said, ‘If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.’”

 Not to be outdone, Trump tweeted back: “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!”

 Biden has since acknowledged that he “shouldn’t have said” that, but the damage is done. We’ve come down one more notch in the quality of public discourse.

 Avoid Getting Dragged Down

How do you think this kind of behavior from two of our nation’s leaders is affecting the way the rest of us engage with one another? If our leaders can’t set an example of civility and reasonable discourse, what can be expected of ordinary people?

 Guess we’re just going to have to set an example of holding constructive conversations!  Our personal relationships depend on this, our work relationships depend on this, our country and our world depends on this. The stakes are too high for us to continue in this direction.

 The good news is that with a little self-awareness and a few simple strategies, it is possible to have a respectful conversation with someone whose views you disagree with and learn something besides!

 Let’s look at how.

 3 Mindsets Worth Adopting

1.     Assume honorable (or at least neutral) intent: This one is a biggie. Keep in mind that what we hear is filtered through our preconceived notions. For example, have you ever had a conversation with someone and you’re thinking, “Here we go again”?  Let’s say it’s with Phyllis, one of your direct reports. Phyllis has a habit of shooting down every creative idea Wendy comes up with.

You’re in a staff meeting and Wendy proposes a new policy for telecommuting. “Are you kidding me?” Phyllis scoffs, “If we implement that, no one is going to come to the office!

If your mind kicked into autopilot, negatively judging Phyllis and her comments, you’re not alone. But wouldn’t it be more helpful to evaluate Phyllis’s comments on their merits, in the context of that particular situation? Maybe she actually is making a legitimate point.

What would it look like to assume honorable (or at least neutral) intent? You might ask Phyllis how she came to the conclusions she’s offering, and give her a chance to share her reasoning.  Or maybe you could encourage the two of them to discuss the upsides and the downsides of Wendy’s proposal rather than assume Wendy is right and Phyllis is wrong.

2.     Keep an open mind: Once you’ve mastered the first mindset, it’s time to move on to the mindset of curiosity.  Let's say a friend of yours strongly expresses the view that the best way to protect the country is to build a wall on the border. “What an interesting line of reasoning,” you might think, “I wonder how he came to this conclusion?”

Genuine curiosity can replace judgment for the duration of your conversation. You don’t have to endorse your friend’s views about building a wall just because you gave him a chance to share his reasoning.  

3.     You can be the bigger person: Okay, Mr. President, this one’s for you. Just because Biden takes a swing at you doesn’t mean you have to swing back.  One of my mantras is, “the only person you can control is you.” When I am in situations of potential conflict, I focus on staying open, continuing to listen to the other person and avoiding getting triggered myself. That way, I can walk away from the interaction feeling proud of my behavior no matter what the other person does. Of course, it doesn't always work perfectly but focusing on my own behavior is more likely to get the result I'm aiming for.

Techniques That Help You Stay Open

Most of the time the techniques flow from the mindset. But sometimes you need to fake it till you make it. It's not always that easy to maintain these mindsets in the heat of the moment. That’s where these three techniques come in handy.

1.     “Yes, and…”: Train yourself to use the phrase so essential to improv theater routines.  Replace “yes, but…” with “Yes, and…” You’ll find that not only is the conversation more constructive but you’ll actually change the way you think about viewpoints that you don’t agree with.

For example, my husband has said, “We need to tear out the perennial garden and put a patio there.” While my initial response might be, “But I like it there,” I might try, “Yes, and we can create a new bed in front of the patio with the plants from the old bed.” This simple behavioral change helps rewire the brain to seek common ground rather than difference. Try it! It can be powerful.

2.     Ask sincere questions: In her book, We Need to Talk, Celeste Headlee writes, “Sincere questions can even open up conversation with those people who don’t like us very much.” Open-ended sincere questions demonstrate your interest and invite the other person to share what’s important to them. Instead of rebutting your friend’s views about building a wall to protect the country, you might ask, “What kind of wall would work? How would it protect us?” You might actually learn something!

3.     Create a deflection mantra: Let’s say you anticipate being challenged by someone you’re talking to and you don’t want to lose your cool. Coming up with a deflection mantra beforehand can work wonders. What do I mean by a deflection mantra? This is a sentence that you practice until it’s second nature in response to a statement you find inflammatory.

It can be something like, “I’ll have to think about that,” or “Gee, that’s an interesting perspective.” Recently, I worked with a client who needed to be a model of professionalism in a team building session that could have involved conflict. Before the session, he created a powerful deflection mantra. Luckily, he didn’t need to use it. Maybe just having it in his hip pocket reduced his reactivity.

Why Is It Worth Trying?

You might be thinking that this is all a lot of work. Maybe you’d rather avoid people with whom you might have differences rather than teach yourself how to listen, and possibly even learn from, them. Well, it’s certainly your choice but here are a few ways adopting this practice could benefit you as a leader:

  • Gives you a much bigger picture of your world, which helps with decision- making and strategy work.
  • Builds alliances with people you might have to rely on to get thing done that are important to you.
  • Sets a good example for your team, your family, and our politicians. Who knows, maybe it will “trickle up”!

What have you learned about talking with people whose views you disagree with? I’m guessing you’ve had a lot of practice recently! Please post a suggestion in the Comments Box.