Sitting around the Thanksgiving table, I struggled to describe my job to my conservative aunt and her even more conservative neighbor. I wasn’t in the mood at the moment for a throw-down on climate change. More importantly, I wanted them to see my job – telling people about fuel-efficient and electric cars – as a good thing. I finally settled on the energy security angle.
“I tell people about how they can use less oil in their cars. Eventually it’s going to run out, so it’s best if we can use as little as possible,” I explained.
“Well, you know, some of those old oil things, they go back to and there’s more there,” the neighbor responded.
As I stared at her and my husband tried to explain that away, she continued, “Oil has to build up faster than scientists say it does to get the amount we have, since the world’s only 8,000 years old.” I was so surprised that I had nothing to say. To put it lightly, that’s a very rare situation for me.
While this conversation was about science and my job, it could have easily been about parenting choices, green living, or politically progressive points of view. Eating a vegetarian diet, choosing not to use time-outs on your stubborn or strong-willed kid, or attending a climate change rally with your family are even more likely to draw unwanted commentary. It’s easy to want to avoid people who hold radically different perspectives, but that’s not always possible. Plus, if a topic is near and dear to your heart, you may want to try to change their mind on a topic, even if you have to talk people who disagree on it.
Here’s some tips for talking to people who disagree with your parenting, lifestyle or just point of view. Most of this is from the social science literature, so I’ve tried to link to good summaries of that literature when possible. Just as a warning – this may not be relevant for all situations. There may be times when you want to straight-up call someone out, like if they tell a racist or sexist joke.
Understand your audience by listening to them – really listening.
It’s so easy to assume everyone thinks like us. When reviewing my book proposal (yes, I have a book proposal!), my friend commented that I was near-religious in how I talked about environmental sustainability. There was a level of preaching to the choir, where I assumed everyone shared the same values as I did.
Good communication relies on understanding both that people see the world very differently from us and how they see it. Specifically, good communication relies on trust. Listening and being genuinely interested in what people have to say is one of the biggest ways to build and maintain trust.
When researchers conducted a study where people went door-to-door and engaged in meaningful conversation on rights for trans people that included reflecting on their own experiences, there was a significant, lasting shift in opinions.
If people have the space to work out their own thoughts more clearly, they may even come to the same conclusions as you without you needing to push them. In a series of open and honest conversations about race, my mother-in-law realized that even though she loved her mom, she could be pretty racist at times.
Connect on common values (if possible)
In a great article about communicating about climate change, one scientist says “When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science.” That’s because most people he talks to don’t care about climate change or the science behind it. To appeal to them, he frames the issue in a context they do care about, whether that’s fishing, real estate or farming.
Finding common values can help heal even the most contentious of arguments. It’s one of the main things I recommended in my masters thesis where I studied a community in Ireland that had been torn apart in a multi-decade conflict over a natural gas pipeline.
In the case of lifestyle or parenting choices, finding common values may be difficult. Conservatives tend to value loyalty, stability, and authority, while liberals value equality, mutual understanding, and protecting vulnerable people. But depending on who you talk to, you may be able to connect over their interest in individual freedoms, connection with family, or faith. And most people say they want the best for their children – and presumably your children, if you’re talking to them.
State your personal experience plainly and without judgment
Personal stories can be incredibly powerful. That’s because being vulnerable is one way to build trust and sharing stories are a major way to be vulnerable.
However, it’s essential to frame a personal story as “this is my experience and why I feel this way.” If you frame your story as universal, the other person may feel like they need to defend themselves. It’s likely they’ll either pull out an unrelated but at-odds story to yours or a story from “someone they know.” (One example is the “my black friend” phenomena, like “Well, my black friend said he never has problems with the police.”)
My friend Heather does a great job of this in a post on why she’s homeschooling her kids. While I’m a huge proponent of public education, I find her story really compelling.
Use facts strategically
Some people think, “If only I give this person the facts, they’ll do the right thing. Or at least agree with me.” That’s called the “deficit model” of communication. Sadly, decades of social science research has shown it’s not true.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for facts. Rather, you have to use them strategically. First, don’t lead with facts. Starting with a list of facts makes the person you’re talking to feel attacked and puts them on guard. Websites that fact-check politican’s statements aren’t as effective as you would hope. Often, when you present evidence that disagrees with people’s perceptions, they just double-down on them instead of changing their minds. Only bring in data after you’re listened to the other person and shared your experiences.
If you bring in supporting facts, think about the sources you’re quoting. Just like I’m not going to be moved from someone providing “proof” from Fox News, a conservative is unlikely to find Mother Jones or MSNBC a credible source. The closer you can get to a credible source for that person, the more likely they’ll listen.
Surprise them by thinking outside the box
My father-in-law is politically diametrically opposed to me. He has voted Republican in every election for decades save for Trump and that’s mainly because my sister-in-law threatened to disown him if he did. And yet we’ve had many fascinating and even fun political discussions. While he was used to arguing with typical New York City Democrats, my point of view was from a very different perspective. By surprising him with a perspective he hadn’t heard before, he engaged far more in the conversation than he would have otherwise.
The person you’re talking to probably has a stereotype of a group in their head that they’re sticking you into. The more your reasoning is uniquely you, the more authentic you’ll be and easier to talk to. You’ll probably be more comfortable in those choices too, which will make it easier for you to talk about them!
Decide on your boundaries
After a certain point, some conversations are going to feel like you’re just hitting your head against a wall. Some things take time and others will just never happen. For the sake of your mental health, decide when cutting off the conversation is just the right thing to do.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, conversations will go to hell like they did for me on that weird Thanksgiving night. Fortunately or unfortunately, you’ll almost always have another chance.