“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” ~Pema Chodron
I was recently having dinner with a group of friends, and I casually mentioned that I’ve been making more effort in my life to help prevent climate change.
Across the table, someone looked straight at me and said, “You know human-induced climate change isn’t real, right?”
I was shocked because I’ve known this person for years and we’ve always agreed on important topics in the past. I immediately shot back with, “Umm, yes it is!” and proceeded to tell him exactly why he was so wrong.
I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say the rest of the conversation didn’t go well. As the conversation heated up, we became the only people talking to each other (read: shouting) across the table.
In the end, someone shut the argument down by saying, “You’ll just have to agree to disagree.” We both took the hint, retreated into our corners, and glared at each other for the rest of the evening.
I told the story to another friend a few days later. To be honest, I was searching for an ally to fuel my anger. But instead of nodding and agreeing with me, she said, “It sounds a lot like you were trying to force your beliefs on him and got mad when he wouldn’t back down.”
This was a comment that stuck with my mind, and eventually I had to admit it. Because I felt right, I refused to believe that anyone else could be wrong. Even worse, emotion had completely taken over, and I’d made no effort to find common ground or try and see things from a different perspective.
In hindsight, I’ve realized I was missing the larger truth that we all believe we are seeing the world as it should be. Because they allow us to make sense out of this chaotic world, our deeply held beliefs are part of who we are. If someone views things differently to us, we feel unbalanced and insecure.
But the good news is, no matter how differently you see the world from someone else, there’s always a way to find some common ground. Here are six tips I’ve learned to help have productive, respectful conversations and open your mind to different perspectives.
1. The outcome is what you should be focusing on.
If you are getting bogged down in arguing over specifics, you can take it up to as high as necessary until you reach common ground.
In the instance of climate change, for example, it would have been easy to agree that we both believe the environment is vital and want the world to be a safer place. There are just different ways to do it. This is a great way to reset the conversation because you’re focused on discussing the outcome rather than winning the argument.
2. Learn their perspectives.
Understanding the root cause of someone’s belief can open up a new perspective. Although it might not be the right thing to do, understanding why someone believes something can help you see the bigger picture and allow you to show empathy.
For example, someone’s refusal to accept climate change might be caused by concern about the negative effects it will have on their life. Maybe transitioning to renewable energy means they will lose their job or be forced to change their lifestyle in ways they don’t want to accept.
If you can understand these underlying concerns, you’ll be much more likely to find common ground and have a productive discussion.
3. You can’t separate emotion and logic.
A stressful argument can hijack the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking and decision-making. When this happens, you go into “fight or flight” mode and become more likely to react emotionally, think less creatively, and say things without thinking them through.
Next time you feel angry, defensive or involved in an argument take a step back. Then acknowledge your feelings and de-escalate them. Once you’re feeling more logical and calm, you can start to look for common ground again.
4. Practice active listening.
The communication skill of active listening involves paraphrasing the conversation and then responding. It’s an essential skill for finding common ground because it shows that you’re genuinely interested in understanding their perspective.
The next time you’re in an argument, try repeating back what the other person has said in different words to make sure you’ve understood them correctly. Then, add your perspective to what they’ve said. For example, “I can see why you feel that way, but I also think…”
5. Pay attention to your biases.
We all have biases—it’s part of being human. We want to win arguments, be right, and be liked, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of only listening to information that supports our point of view.
In this case, I was forced to admit that I haven’t actually read any of the climate change research myself. My beliefs almost exclusively rest on being in a bubble of like-minded people that reinforce them.
Exposing yourself to different perspectives—even if you don’t agree with them—can help you think more critically about your own beliefs. You might find common ground even if you think there is none.
6. Be open to differing opinions.
The world wouldn’t be as interesting if everyone could agree on all things. But, even more important is that different opinions help push society forward. You are challenged to reflect on your beliefs and find new ways to solve problems.
If you are ever in an argument, don’t be afraid to use it to your advantage and learn from others. The possibilities of finding common ground are endless.
Mindful Cupid is Mitch’s co-founder. The website helps readers to improve their relationships. You’ll find lots of useful articles on how to find love, survive heartbreak, explore your spiritual side, and discover your best self. Visit mindfulcupid.com to learn more or sign up on Facebook.
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Tiny Buddha published the post If You Strikingly disagree with Someone: How to Find Common Ground.