Raise your hand if you’ve recently engaged in an insult-slinging argument that started as an attempt at a civil discussion about some hot-button issue. Many of us have, and with high-stakes elections looming, the already fiery discourse will likely only intensify.
Though it might feel satisfying in the moment, calling someone a bleeping—insert your favorite derogatory term here—is never going to help them understand your point of view. Rather, experts in persuasive communication say, it’s crucial to focus on curiosity and compassion, and to make it clear that you don’t think the person you’re talking to is the enemy—or look down on them.
“I’ve always believed that more collaboration and happiness was possible if only people knew how to talk to each other better,” says David Campt, founder of the Dialogue Company, which trains people to approach hard conversations more effectively. “Especially now, with a higher level of polarization, it’s vital that we learn how to have a good conversation across different points of view.”
Every year, Kurt Gray asks the students in his classes if they’ve had a conversation that changed their mind about subjects like abortion or immigration. “The percentage isn’t zero, but it’s not high,” says Gray, an associate professor in psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he directs the Deepest Beliefs Lab and the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding. “It is possible, but it’s not easy, and it’s not frequent.”
Certain strategies, however, can make the attempt more effective. Here, experts share research-backed strategies that can help you actually change someone’s mind.
Go in calm
Entering the conversation in the right mindset is key—and that means striving to be cool, calm, collected, and open to learning. If you’re fired-up, and know you might snap, revisit the issue another time, Campt advises.
He also suggests disclosing any nervousness or vulnerability to your conversation partner. “Our tendency is to want to hide that, but owning up to the fact that you’re nervous is actually helpful, because it tends to soften people.”
Research by Gray and others, published in Nature Human Behavior in September, provides additional helpful guidance: Don’t assume the person you’re talking to hates you, even if you hold different political views. Republicans and Democrats both overestimate the extent to which the other side dehumanizes them by up to 300%, according to the findings. “If you start a conversation thinking that this person hates your guts and doesn’t want to listen, it’s going to be a bad conversation,” Gray says. “Research shows that correcting that one misconception—that the other side doesn’t hate your side as much as you thought—is a really powerful way to reduce partisan animosity.”
Whatever your conversation partner shares, it’s crucial to listen non-judgmentally and with empathy, says David McRaney, author of the 2022 book How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion and host of the science podcast You Are Not So Smart.
“If you communicate that they should be ashamed, or that they’re stupid or gullible, they’re going to push against you in a way that ruins the possibility of moving forward to a conversation that would actually change their mind in some way or get them to reevaluate the matter,” he says.
Read More: The Art of Persuasion in a Polarized Age
Research published in Psychological Science in October found that empathizing with the people you disagree with may make your political arguments more persuasive. Using terms like “I agree,” “we all want,” and “I understand that” can help indicate empathy.
If your empathy tank is running low, Campt suggests three ways to help fill it up: First, picture the person you’re talking to when they were a small child. Then, zoom in on a positive moment you’ve had with them, or think about some aspiration they have that you support. These exercises can help us “open up our hearts” and foster the best possible environment for a tough conversation, he says.
Find some common ground
If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, the conversation can’t be all about correcting: It has to be about connecting, Campt says. He recommends opening the conversation by finding something you can both agree on.
If somebody declares that protests against police need to stop, for example, you could agree that good police officers certainly do exist. “Your strategy is to agree to the extent that you can with something embedded in their statement, even if you disagree with part of it,” says Campt, who consults on areas of diversity, inclusion, and equity and is the creator of the White Ally Toolkit, an anti-racism workbook. He thinks of the strategy as ABC: agree before challenging. It can help put people in an open mindset before you invite them to new thinking.
Tell stories, not just facts
Firing facts at the person you’re talking to is never going to be effective, Gray stresses. Sharing personal experiences and narratives is far more likely to resonate.
Research published in 2016 supports that notion: Door-to-door canvassers who were advocating for trans rights engaged in deep reflection with voters about transphobia, talking about their experiences and views, and these conversations substantially reduced the voters’ transphobia for the next three months, as measured by follow-up surveys. “Sharing and connecting on a human level was more effective than arguing,” Gray says. Often, people “think the best thing to do is to argue as aggressively as possible,” but that’s not the case.
It’s easy for someone to refute facts, but harder to refute experiences, Campt says. That’s why it can be helpful to ask questions about a person’s experiences, rather than their beliefs, that inform their point of view—and to avoid attacking them. Say you’re talking to someone who doesn’t vote, he says, and you’d like to change their mind. The person might say that no politicians actually listen; instead of telling them that’s not true, share a story about a time in your life when you felt like politicians didn’t hear you. This will help you and your conversation partner feel like you’re on the same side. Then, tell them another story: an experience that helped prove to you that politicians were, in fact, listening—and how you knew and why it mattered. Sharing stories helps build trust and encourages each person to open up, while widening perspectives, Campt says.
Open the door to introspection
Many people feel strongly about divisive issues but never stop to catalog the specific reasons why, McRaney says. There are ways to “hold a space for this person to actually develop their first opinion about the matter,” he adds.
For example, you might start by asking someone: On a scale of 1 to 10, how strongly do you feel about gun control? Suppose the person responds with a 7. Why not a 6 or a 10? Often, when you pose that follow-up question, they’ll pause and say, “Well…” before delivering an explanation—perhaps the first they’ve ever articulated, even to themselves. At that point, the person you’re talking to might discover their opinions aren’t as strong as they had thought, and that there’s room for flexibility.
“What you want to do is create a space where you go shoulder to shoulder, and you say, ‘I think you’re a rational, reasonable person,’” McRaney says. “‘I think we both probably agree on a lot of the same problems in this world. I’m wondering why on this particular issue we disagree, and I’d love your permission to investigate that together.’”
Know when to take a break
Inevitably, some conversations will dissolve into arguments. If the person you’re talking to insults you, Campt recommends saying: “I want to go back to just before you said X,” and rewinding the conversation.
It’s also OK to take breaks. If things start to escalate, step away with the excuse of visiting the restroom, Campt suggests, and take a moment to compose yourself before deciding whether and how to continue.
If you’re online, set boundaries
For proof that productive conversations on social media are rare, look no further than antagonistic Twitter threads and long-winded, belligerent Facebook comments. Online, you’re often anonymous, you can’t see the other person’s face, and it’s easy to misconstrue their words and intentions, Gray says.
But Dr. Karin Tamerius, a psychiatrist who’s the founder of the website Smart Politics—which teaches people how to communicate more productively and persuasively—considers online platforms one of the most fruitful places for political discourse.
She recommends following these four steps:
1. Humanize yourself. Social-media users often forget they’re talking to real people, not robots devoid of feelings. When she joins a new conversation, Tamerius always introduces herself, telling others her name and that it’s nice to meet them. “In 90% of cases, that’s enough for them to immediately change their orientation, ” she says. “It puts them into a different script.”
2. Set boundaries. Pose the request like this, Tamerius suggests: “I want to have this conversation with you, but we can’t have it if you’re calling me names or questioning my motives. Can we agree to treat each other with respect and try to understand each other’s perspective?” Most of the time, she says, people agree.
3. If those boundaries are crossed, issue a reminder. Someone might get so caught up in rapid-fire replies that they forget to follow the rules governing the conversation. In that case, call them out and give them one more chance.
4. If the behavior remains problematic, block or mute. Don’t feel bad cutting off contact, especially if the conversation has become abusive. “I let them know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,” Tamerius says. “And then I tell them, ‘If at some point you’re ready to engage in a more productive way, you’re welcome to come back.’ I leave the door open, so they know this isn’t personal.”
Keep a certain degree of detachment from the outcome
Have you ever tried to catch a butterfly in your hands? What happens, Campt says, is that “you often push the butterfly away by the wind you create reaching for it.”
The same risks surround pushing your conversation partner too hard. Instead, keep a healthy amount of detachment from the outcome. Your emotional and mental health shouldn’t depend on the other person changing their mind about a certain issue.
It can be helpful, Campt adds, to keep in mind that this is the first attempt, not the only—or final—opportunity you’ll have to talk. “You’re trying to learn, and to understand,” he says, collecting information that you’ll utilize in the next conversation, and the one after that.
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