"It's impossible to discuss with you!" The art of disagreeing and 3 tips to prevent a disaster

November 2014, Washington, DC.

You've probably said it to someone before.

And someone has probably said it to you as well.


After many political and social discussions with people from all over the world, I've found a couple of tips to have a relaxed and fun disagreement. I hope they're also useful to you!

1) Context: explaining sexual liberation to your granny


As a traveler, I have realized that there is an immense cultural and sociological background that we take for granted during a discussion. We do this because in or daily chats with the people that surround us, that background is usually very similar: the country we're born in, the religion we've been taught or the acquisitive level of our family are part of who we are and have a strong influence in our opinions. When I traveled alone, I found that these breaches grew broader and became a harder communication challenge than when I was back at home.


Bedtime story: during my time in the U.S.A., I had an embarrassing moment talking about gun ownership with a couple of liberal people. I took for granted that the country's progressive society would position itself in the same place as the Spanish one and assumed that most U.S. liberals were against it, so I carelessly said some harsh comments that, to my surprise, were bitterly replied to. It so happens that, while Europeans regard guns as a merely defensive tool, to most U.S. citizens (liberal or conservative) they are part of their nation's birth and heritage. By not realizing that our historical (and symbolical) context was not the same, I unwillingly offended some good people I could have had an interesting conversation with. Nice job, Elisa.


But context is not only important not to screw it up during a discussion like I did - it is also essential in terms of how far into the subject you can get. That's why you cannot talk about women's sexual liberation at the same level with your friends than with your 80-year-old Catholic grandma. After many varied discussions, I found that contextualizing and adjusting my speech made it possible that at least one or two of my ideas were listened to and considered by the person disagreeing with me.

Petitions at the Old Capitol State Museum (Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.A.)
Petitions at the Old Capitol State Museum (Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.A.)

2) Watch your tongue, punk


The way we express a statement can be more powerful than the statement itself. There are no absolute truths in the opinion field. This may seem obvious, but I sometimes find it hard to acknowledge that my opinions can never be objective, even if they are supported by actual facts. So, little by little, I've made some changes in the way I express myself that have helped keeping the heat down:


  • I substituted "X" by "My opinion is X", so that I'd let the other person know that I'm aware that X is subjective opinion, not an absolute truth.


  • I substituted "But..." by "I totally understand you, but...", so that I'd the other person know that I've listened to them and see their point, even if I disagree. And if I don't "totally understand", I just ask!


  • I substituted "Yes, but..." by "I think you're absolutely right about that, I agree! But..." and this might be the most important point of all. I've found that, when the other person says something I agree with, pointing it out can be an essential move, because it makes us feel closer. If you ignore their point and take it for granted, you may give the impression that your goal is to "win". Common ground can be a relieving break during a discussion.


So changing the way I spoke in these little ways helped me improve a lot the atmosphere of these conversations. Also, an extra: be careful with your non-verbal language. I kept making people upset even when I chose the most polite words until I realized that my body was sending a different message: watch out for showing impatience with your hands, or rolling your eyes - you may not be aware of it, but the other person will!

Changing perspectives, spinning minds! (New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A.)
Changing perspectives, spinning minds! (New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A.)

3) Information is power (oh, the harm Tumblr has done to us)


So you're a trans-gender anarcho-syndicalist vegan feminist who hates heteropatriarchy and defends that #blacklivesmatter. That's great. Or maybe you are none of these things and wonder what the hell half of them mean. That's great too. But if the first person doesn't acklowledge that the second one doesn't handle these terms, you two are probably going to end up arguing.


This is the most common communication problem between activists and non-activists I've seen so far. While many non-activists refuse to get to know certain terms before talking about what they imply (if only I got a cent for every time I've heard "I don't believe in feminism, I believe in equality"!), it is true that many times activists behave like everyone should know these terms or even get upset about it. And that only leads to making the other person feel like their intelect is being attacked. So, when I realize that I handle more specific/profound terms or information on a subject (simply because I chose to read more about it), I always make sure that I explain them to the other person before using them. And if I don't have the patience/time, I just find a different way to express myself.


On the other hand, when I see that I am the one handling less information or terms, I take it as a chance to learn. Keeping an open mind has made me find some ideas that click with thoughts I already had inside my head, enriching them. And I don't mean only sociological terms - if you find yourself talking about Kim Jong-Un with someone who has been in North Korea, or about minimum wage with a McDonald's employee, you might as well shut your mouth and listen to what they have to say.





Stay open. Be ready to find in the other person an idea that might change your mind or at least broaden your perspective. It's not about winning, it's about expanding your mindset. I always try to "catch" myself trying to win. Are you listening or are you just waiting for your turn to speak? And if none of these work and the other person is being a total a**hole, remember that you have no obligation of dealing with a discussion you feel uncomfortable with.

Have fun disagreeing!

Write a comment

Comments: 5
  • #1

    Maggie (Thursday, 01 October 2015 11:32)

    So, after reading this article twice, I finally decided to comment. Overall, I think discussing issues with people who have an opposing view to mine is the best way to learn and explore the topic, as long as both sides don't see it as a "battle", hoping to crush the opponent with their arguments.
    A huge problem with this is the stronger a person believes in their point of view, the more personal it is, the harder to talk only about facts because a lot of emotions get involved. As an example: healthcare in my country. Working in the medical field I know the issues on the other side of the barricade (staff and equipment shortages, collapsing health insurance program, etc.) and I try to be as understanding as I can of the patients' problems. However, it's very complicated to have a reasonable argument with a patient in the Emergency Room or someone who's been waiting for their medical procedure for a couple of years (yes, years!). The media portrayal of healthcare in my country does not help, either.
    On a different note: I have repeatedly faced incredulous reactions from the people I've talked with when I answered "I don't have an opinion" or "I'm not sure" after being asked about some current issue. It seems that it's quite popular nowadays to have strong beliefs on everything. Afterwards I explain that I haven't really dug into the subject and I don't exactly trust the way it is portrayed in the media. Basically, I haven't done my research. So, I'd gladly hear the other person's side of the story and I'm open to all their arguments but please, please don't expect me to agree with you until I feel comfortable making a stance. And sometimes, based on how complicated the issue is, I might not have a definite opinion at all because I recognize the arguments of both sides and realize it's not all black and white.

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