How to manage conflict and have productive conversations with people you disagree with

Talking about divisive issues with friends, family and even strangers can be anxiety-inducing. Here, an expert explains how to handle difficult conversations and arguments.

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Disagreements are an inevitable part of life, both the political and the personal. In fact, dealing with conflict with others is something that you might have to deal with on a fairly regular basis.

Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 38% of UK employees had reported some form of interpersonal conflict at work in the last year. And conflict isn’t just an issue at work, as a 2018 report showed that families spend an average of 49 minutes per day arguing.

So why are so many people unequipped to handle conflict? Even those who don’t struggle with confidence issues have found themselves sweaty-palmed, at a loss for words during a disagreement about something they care about. And that’s what makes conflict so anxiety-inducing – it’s usually centred around something you feel passionately about and that affects you or your family and friends.  

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Conflict at work, heated discussions with family or disagreements with the general public all ultimately come down to wanting to protect yourself or those around you. The difficult thing is, the same is usually true for the person you are arguing with.

“During any argument, both people feel that they have got the evidence behind them to back them up,” says Louisa Weinstein, the founder and director of the Conflict Resolution Centre. “But it’s really hard to step back and understand that.”

Here, Louisa shares her advice on how to deal with and diffuse conflict, in order to help you get the most out of your interactions with other people you disagree with.

How to decide if it’s worth starting a situation of potential conflict 

One of the best ways to manage conflict is to decide whether it’s really worth starting it at all. If it’s not, the conversation won’t be productive so it’s not worth wasting your time on it.

“It’s okay to express your opinion as long as you know that it’s your opinion and that people might not agree with it,” Louisa says, explaining that you should never enter into a discussion with someone you disagree with unless you can accept that the conversation is a matter of two opinions. “You need to know that the other person might not agree and you might not change their mind,” she adds.

“Keep your expectations of the other people quite low,” Louisa says, adding that people often overestimate the extent to which they can change people’s opinions.

She also explains that it’s important to remember that what you’re going to say is intended to elicit a response from the person you’re speaking to, so you have to be prepared for them to be angry or upset. “Take responsibility for the consequences that engaging in this conversation might have,” Louisa says. 

Try not to dump your feelings on others 

You should never enter into a disagreement with someone for the sole reason of sharing your feelings with them, Louisa says. Often, during an argument, you may have found yourself getting unexpectedly teary or angry. Louisa says that this is because the feelings that you are having about the issue at hand may bring up past trauma, which could escalate the issue.

“Understand where your strength of feeling comes from because it’s often displaced,” she says, adding that, “you need to find ways to emotionally regulate yourself and take responsibility for your feelings.”

To avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed, Louisa recommends sticking to the following structure when you’re airing your issues:

“When you did X, my experience was Y and I would be grateful if you could stop doing it.”

This way, what you say has a clear aim. “By illustrating to them what they have done and what the impact of that is on you, you’re not making them feel responsible for how you feel,” Louisa explains. 

Learn to respect other people’s differing opinions 

An argument, particularly a political one, is a matter of two differing opinions. Even if you believe that your opinion is the correct one, it’s important to learn to respect what other people are saying in order to engage in a productive conversation.

Louisa uses the example of face masks, something people are particularly divided on right now. “Some people feel, for example, that wearing a mask is damaging to their health and other people feel that not wearing a face mask is damaging to their health – both people feel that they’ve got the evidence behind that,” Louisa says. She explains that you have to respect that, for the other person, their belief is their reality, just like your belief is your reality. Trying to discredit that by turning your nose up at them is unlikely to be effective, as productive conversations need to start from a place of respect.

“Listen properly to other people’s responses,” she continues. “What’s the point in saying something if you’re not going to hear the response?”

Louisa’s advice is that you shouldn’t open a conversation up unless you’re prepared to commit to it. “Don’t invalidate the other person’s anger because this will escalate the situation,” she says, adding that an angry response is common and you should only enter the situation if you feel safe in this knowledge.

You don’t have to agree with what they are saying or respect the reasons behind their beliefs. But you do have to respect that this is the way they currently feel about a topic. “You can respect someone’s opinion without having to agree with it and you can also walk away from that relationship,” Louisa says. 

Four ways you can learn to respect others’ opinions, according to Louisa:

  • Make an effort to want to respect other people’s opinions.
  • Have a degree of humility and remember times when you have been wrong in the past about something you were sure of.
  • Respect other people’s feelings and have empathy with what motivates other people’s points of views. Often, people’s opinions come from them wanting to protect their friends, families and themselves and you can probably relate to that.
  • Try and figure out what you can take from the conversation to help you learn and grow as a person. This doesn’t necessarily mean learning from their opinion. 

Set boundaries with people you disagree with 

Often, ending a relationship with someone you disagree with isn’t a viable option, so it’s important to find ways to make your relationship work. “Set boundaries around what the purpose of your interactions are,” Louisa suggests, explaining that this is relevant for both work and personal relationships. “Ask yourself, what are your common interests and needs? What are you trying to achieve together and how do you do that in a very practical way?”

Louisa also advises that you should try and think about the person in a more positive light, if only to make you feel less angry and upset when you’re around them. “Concentrate on sending them all the things you want. By wishing them good, you’ll feel differently towards them and the irritation and anger will dispel, which will make it easier to be around that person,” she explains. 

How to diffuse conflict as a bystander 

Maybe you rarely enter into disagreements yourself but the people around you do. In this case, you might feel the need to step in to help to diffuse the situation. Louisa says the most important thing to consider, before you do, is if it is safe for you to enter. If not, you should avoid getting involved.

The next thing you should consider is whether or not you will be able to have any impact on the situation. “Unless you know how to enter into that situation and you know how you’re going to manage it, don’t interfere,” she says.

The only exception to this is if someone is in a vulnerable position. In this case, Louisa advises that you should ask them if they are okay and move them away from the situation. “If there is bullying or aggressive behaviour, don’t give attention to that behaviour,” she says.

If you do think you can help to diffuse the situation, Louisa recommends trying to calm people down by taking them back to what their initial aims were when they entered the discussion. “Ask the people involved what they want and what they are trying to get from the discussion. This will divert their intention towards what they actually want, which you can then try and manage,” she says.

You can manage it by using all the techniques above, like encouraging them to respect each other’s opinions and trying to divert conversations that are emotionally charged. “Sometimes the best resolution is accepting that two people have different perspectives and realising that the conversation isn’t going anywhere,” Louisa says. 

  • Louisa Weinstein, conflict mediation specialist

    Louisa Weinstein conflict resolution expert
    Louisa Weinstein is a conflict mediation specialist and the founder of The Conflict Resolution Centre.

    Louisa is a conflict mediation specialist and the founder of The Conflict Resolution Centre, based in London. She has been supporting individuals and organisations to achieve effective negotiations and to build cohesive teams for the last 20 years. Louisa is author of 7 Principles Of Conflict Resolution, the featured conflict resolution expert on the BBC’s Across the Red Line, and is an associate tenant at Doughty Street Chambers.

Images: Getty and Louisa Weinstein