How I Learned to Listen and Engage with Opposing Viewpoints

One of the most distressing and damaging developments in recent years is the breakdown in our ability to discuss issues with people with whom we disagree. And I don’t mean just in the political space, although it is certainly a challenge. I once witnessed a fistfight between two older gentlemen about who was first in line at the movies. When we hear reports of violence over minor things like parking spaces, we often wonder what went wrong.

While most conversations of those of opposing views don’t end that way, they often end with anger. And while you may decide just to avoid those with who you disagree, this is not always possible. Nor is it really healthy. First, it may be difficult if you work with someone or a family member who is in the “other camp.” These are people you can’t permanently avoid. But even more importantly, engaging with people we disagree with helps us build empathy and gain understanding in a way that creates cooperation.

What Is Confirmation Bias?

Most people tend to read and listen to messages that validate what they already believe. This is called confirmation bias. They would like a particular belief or idea to be true, so they choose to believe it. They then seek out information that confirms their belief. Even when they read or hear something that challenges it, they decide to go back to their original belief. This can make engaging with those of opposing views even more difficult.

We all have our own biases and learning to spot them can take a little work. They may be right, or you may be right. This is not the point. The point is to be able to engage with someone whose views are different than your own and try to understand their point of view. This is often how compromises and real progress is made.

What Is Emotional Awareness?

Emotions play a huge role in communication. Emotional awareness, or being able to understand feelings, is one way to communicate effectively. Using this skill, you can take note of the emotions of other people, and how the way THEY feel influences how they communicate. Feeling empathy towards others is a big part of emotional awareness.

Learn How to Listen with Empathy

Listening with empathy is a hard skill to master, but an important one to have. It requires a true desire to understand the person you are listening to. It means listening without judging and really empathizing. When you listen to others without judgment, you can truly hear them with an open mind and an open heart.

Learning to listen with empathy matters for many reasons. It will help you fully understand someone else’s opinion. Even if you don’t agree with it, you’ll understand why they believe it. But more importantly, it is a way to find common ground.

Learn How to Disagree Respectfully

Most of the time, it is not the disagreement that is the issue, it is how it is delivered. There are so many examples of this in our daily lives. Could the two men fighting over their space in line have chosen less violent actions? Of course, the answer is yes. They were both at the front of the line, would there have been much of a difference where they sat? When done right, disagreement can build trust, when done wrong, well, we’ve seen how that goes.

How to Respectfully Disagree

When you feel passionate about something, it’s easy to get carried away. Consider that the person you are trying to engage with feels just as passionate about their beliefs. These four steps to a respectful disagreement can help diffuse the situation. You may not come to an agreement, but you may have a better understanding of each other viewpoints, which can set up a future opportunity for an agreement.

  1. Be okay that you disagree. Yep. This is the first step. To have the conversation, you have to acknowledge the disagreement and be okay with it.
  2. Disagree in the right context. This sets the stage. Choose your moment to engage. Perhaps the family holiday gathering is not the right time.
  3. Listen. That is all. Ask any clarifying questions.
  4. Use a framework to respectfully disagree. The PREP method is often used in business situations, and it works here, too. Pause. Respect. Express without the but. Pause.

When you pause, you get a chance to gather your arguments and reign in your emotions. You can also diffuse the situation if it gets heated. Then you can respectfully respond.

How to Use PREP Engaging with Opposing Viewpoints

Let’s take the example of global warming. Someone says that global warming isn’t happening, and you think it is.

Pause to take a breath. Answer respectfully: I hear what you are saying. Many people believe that, and I respect that. Express your belief with no but. This is probably the hardest. Because, but seems to come so naturally to us when disagreeing with someone. Try something like: I believe global warming is, in fact happening. Then pause once more to let them respond if they want to. Repeat.

By using emotional awareness and empathetic listening, you can have a respectful conversation with someone who may hold opposing views. This doesn’t mean you have to give up your passionate belief, but you may find that situations that end in indignation and outrage are likely to be fewer and farther between.

Originally published at on June 25, 2020.



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