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  • Empathy entails viewing the world through another person's unique context; it does not require you to sacrifice your values or your personal safety. Tweet This
  • Don't be surprised, listen intently, enter the other person's world, and more tips on how to have a loving disagreement on hot-button issues. Tweet This

Raise your hand if you have experienced or witnessed any of the following: A joyful family gathering explodes into heated debate over masks; a politically-charged article is posted om social media and world war III ensues in the comments section; a conversation begins with laughter, and ends with curses. Unfortunately, conflicts like these seem nearly omnipresent in 2020. 

Here’s how this usually goes; let’s use a family gathering—a common “ground zero” for these kinds of disagreements—as our example:

Little Joey: Wow, this food is great…I love you all so much. 

Grandma: Yes, there’s nothing I love more than spending time with my beautiful family.

Uncle Bob: On a completely related note, I’m sick and tired of the government making me wear a mask! 

Aunt Sally: So, what you’re saying, Bob, is that you have no regard for the well-being of anyone else but yourself? 

[A screaming match ensues]

Yes, this is the world we live in. Whether we are participants or spectators, the bottom line is that it is important to learn how to love someone through a disagreement—even the most passionate and zealous kinds. 

The key is empathy. Empathy is a buzz word, no doubt; it’s often glorified, but rarely comes with directions. Below, I offer a beginner’s manual. Keep in mind that empathy entails entering into another person’s position—viewing the world through his or her unique context; it does not require you to sacrifice your values or your personal safety. Now, here are 6 rules for respectfully disagreeing with someone you love. 

  1. Don’t be surprised. If your in-laws have debated presidential politics for the last 10 holiday dinners, don’t go into this year expecting a chat about butterflies. On the flip side, if you are meeting with a new acquaintance for the first time, don’t act surprised when you learn that his or her views on voter ID laws are radically different than yours. While it would be nice for everyone to have the same views as us, the entirety of human history has proven this to be an impossibility. If you expect difference (a universal truth), it won’t feel like a ton of emotional bricks when it hits you.
  2. Ground yourself. Awareness is key here. When you start to notice that your conversation is headed in a tricky direction, try at least one “mindfulness” activity: take several deep breaths, conduct a body scan, count slowly to 10, picture a setting that gives you peace, or participate in a quick gratitude survey. You’ll be more centered, and thus, less reactive if the dialogue heats up.  
  3. Listen really well. There’s a good chance that people prone to combative dialogue have rarely experienced exceptional listening. Be the first to shock them. Listen intently—focusing on their words while making no assumptions about their underlying motives/pathologies/morality. After they’re finished—and before you offer your rebuttals—reflect back what you’ve heard the person say. This lets the person know that you truly heard them, and that their words mean something to you.
  4. Respond respectively—and assertively. Use a soft-hard-soft1 template for your response: soft statements convey empathy and/or acknowledge common ground, while a hard statement respectfully and assertively conveys your opinion. Here’s an example: “It sounds like you are really concerned with homeland defense (reflection), and I agree that it’s important to keep the homeland safe [soft]. I also believe that there are different, less interventionist means of achieving this end, which sounds like a matter of policy rather than morality [hard]. While we have some differences of opinion on this, I’m glad we both care about keeping our loved ones safe—I’m thankful that you care so much for your fellow citizens [soft].”
  5. Enter the other person's world. In the field of Marriage and Family Therapy, we emphasize the importance of systems; in short, people [and the ways that they operate] should be viewed in the context of their surroundings. Individuals’ personalities and behavioral patterns are not delivered by storks; rather, they develop as a way to survive in their unique environments. When engaged with someone you disagree with—even someone whose views are repugnant to you—the odds of seeing someone as morally inferior and remaining loving at the same time are slim. It’s important to remind yourself that this person’s views—different as they may be—make sense in this person’s world. In short, assume the best in people until they’ve crossed a personal boundary.
  6. Know your boundaries. This rule is more of a closing disclaimer. Know what you’re willing to tolerate and not willing to tolerate. Obviously, physical threats or violence should be avoided at all costs. Further, if someone consistently makes ad hominem arguments (arguments that demean your personhood, rather than address your particular argument), it will most likely be an uphill battle. Engage to the best of your ability—seek every chance to show the person that you care—but also know when to bow out gracefully.

There you have it—six rules for loving disagreement. While these rules were applied to family and friend gatherings, they may also be used with romantic partners, co-workers, and neighbors. As we head into one of the most contentious elections in our nation’s history, carry these rules in your pocket, share them with your friends, argue about them at the dinner table, and hopefully, we will achieve peace on earth before and after November 4th.

Rich Dell’Isola, M.MFT, LMFT, is a Doctoral Candidate in Couple and Family Therapy at Kansas State University.

Editor's Note: For more helpful tips and resources on respectful political engagement during this divisive time, check out Braver Angels.

1. Papernow, P. L. (2016). Soft/Hard/Soft communication. Techniques for the couple therapist: Essential interventions from the experts, 69-72.