We humans

6 tactics to help you turn heated dinner arguments into real conversations

Nov 19, 2018 /

Want to persuade a friend or family member to open up to your perspective on a hot-button issue? A former debate coach tells you how.

Families – they bring out the best in us and the worst in us. Which means gatherings for the holidays, anniversaries and other big events can sometimes be the scene for major arguments, ranging from the light (which is better: Game of Thrones or The Sopranos?) to the loaded (the most recent election).

For many of us, these discussions are our cue to excuse ourselves and see if help is needed in the kitchen. But we have much to gain by staying put, according to Julia Dhar, a behavioral economist and principal at the Boston Consulting Group. She says, “Rather than thinking about the holidays and other occasions as the fraught time when issues come to a head, think of them as a great time to have human conversations about the things that we care about a lot.”

Prior to her current role at BCG, Dhar competed on an award-winning debate team in Australia and went on to be a debate coach, leading New Zealand’s high-school team and then the Harvard University team to worldwide championships. She strongly believes that we can improve both our relationships and everyday discussions by bringing formal debate tactics, or what she calls “productive disagreement”, to our own lives. “All conversations are an opportunity to engage and persuade,” says Dhar.

Here are her strategies for turning arguments — no matter the topic — into mutually enriching experiences.

1. Call out disagreements.

“People can be hesitant to name conflict for what it is,” says Dhar, “and being the one willing to do that is really powerful.” Heated discussions tend to be the result of strongly held beliefs, so by acknowledging them, we are respecting the other person’s opinions and being true to ourselves.

But it’s important to do this in a calm, non-finger-pointing way. Dhar suggests saying clearly and directly, “I think the thing you and I differ on is this,” rather than “I think the thing you need to know or do is this.”

2. Establish a common reality.

Truth check: What attitude do you usually have when you’re heading into a disagreement? Says Dhar, “Speaking for myself, we go into arguments hoping we’ll make the other person realize how wrong they’ve been, and thank goodness, we’ve showed up to set them right.”

But after years as a debater and then as a debate coach, she realized, “Proving someone wrong is not a strategy; that’s just you talking at them.” Instead, she has learned the secret of “persuaders who are at the top of their game”: They find common ground with their opponents.

As Dhar explains, “There’s very good evidence that shows when you confront people with a ton of information or facts that contradict their worldview, it actually causes them to hold their existing beliefs more strongly.” Instead, she suggests you establish what she calls a “shared reality” for you and the other person.

Asking questions is an effective way to establish that reality. For example, if you and your sister disagree about public-school funding, you could pose questions like, “Can we agree that all children deserve a good education?” or “Is it fair to say that teachers should get the resources they need to best help their students?” Keep asking questions and — this is just as important — allow the person enough time to answer. Really listen to what they say. Do this until you arrive at a belief or set of beliefs that both of you mutually accept. This shared reality can then be the wedge that may open up the other person to your ideas — or you to theirs.

3. Focus on the issue, not the person.

Let’s be honest: We all draw conclusions about each other based on our various identities, be they millennial or baby boomer, working parent or stay-at-home parent, hybrid-car owner or SUV owner, and so on. In heated arguments, it’s tempting to make sweeping personal generalizations, which, as Dhar puts it, “is a recipe for a hot potato.”

Stay away from absolute statements like “Liberals only care about X” or “People in the military just want X to happen,” says Dhar. “This takes a little heat out of the conversation. Now it’s a contest of ideas, not an attack on the other person’s identity.”

4. Accept the possibility of being wrong.

You read that right. If you can go into a conflict indicating you’re open to having your mind changed, you create the space for the other person to do the same. This tactic makes you more objective, less defensive and, ultimately, more persuasive. Dhar advises, “Get yourself into the mindset of ‘This is a process of discovery to me as well.’”

Openness is a subtle trait to show, of course. But Dhar says you can signal it in many ways — through your tone of voice and emotional warmth and by asking questions respectfully and engaging with the other person’s answers. What’s more, this process can also soften you up. “The suspicions you hold about people who espouse beliefs you don’t have can start to evaporate,” she adds, “because you can imagine yourself stepping into those shoes.”

5. Use solid facts – but only if you have them.

Objective truth is “one of the things that is missing from so many of our conversations today,” says Dhar. She suggests, “Think to yourself: ‘Can I take on the role of the person who injects high-quality, objective facts into conversations that get really heated?’ This can feel incredibly empowering.”

So if you know there are certain hot-button topics that will most likely arise, you can do research beforehand (make sure your sources are sound and nonpartisan). But remember: A little goes a long way, as anyone who’s watched politicians reel off a mind-numbing litany of numbers at a debate can tell you.

6. Know when to exit.

Politely end your exchange as soon as you sense it’s run its course. One sure sign it’s time to stop: when you or the other person start repeating yourselves. Then, says Dhar, “Acknowledge, appreciate and switch.”

As she explains, “Acknowledge the mutual goodwill and emotional work it takes to have a conversation with people you disagree with, and then give back to the other person what they’ve given to you.” You can do this by saying things like, “I still believe X, but you’ve really helped me understand your perspective” or “I still find it challenging to do or believe what you’re advocating, but I appreciate what I’ve learned from you.”

Are you ready for Round 2? As Dhar puts it, “The magic of debate as a contest of ideas is there’s always a new debate around the corner.” So if you’re game, she suggests saying, “If you’re open to it, I’m curious what you think about topic X.” Try to choose a less contentious subject but one which you’re genuinely interested to hear another perspective. And if not, there’s always the kitchen.

Watch Julia Dhar’s TED talk here: