How to Engage Audiences With Different Perspectives

May 31, 2022

In the age of social media and internet “research,” a positive approach to handling disagreements is more important than ever. It can be difficult to spend one’s life studying science, or anything for that matter, only to be quickly dismissed in favor of competing information of potentially questionable veracity. We are understandably inclined to reiterate our points strongly in these disagreements—particularly if there are important consequences on the line. This, unfortunately, can have negative effects on the ability to communicate effectively with those who have conflicting perspectives.

It is a fine line to walk, but careful attention, practice and sincere intent can pave the way for more productive disagreements with friends and family, as well as with coworkers and colleagues. These techniques are also useful in advocacy settings, if there is time for conversational exchange. Beyond the breadth of audience, these principles for engagement are useful across a wide array of controversial topics, from science and public health concerns like climate change and COVID-19, to government and political concerns like education and the health care industry. For a more in-depth look at engaging effectively with others where perspectives differ, I highly recommend Mayer’s The Dynamics of Conflict, which has influenced and informed my own views on disagreement and conflict.

Consider Each Party’s Motivation Before Engaging

Those entering a disagreement with the goal of changing the other person’s mind or persuading them to take an opposing side are likely to be disappointed. This type of “all or nothing” behavior is easy to spot, and often closes the door to productive communication. If others believe that your primary motivation is to tell them why they are wrong, without taking them seriously, they are less likely to be open or interested in what you have to say. Would you want to be on the receiving end of that conversation? Even if science clearly supports a particular conclusion, trying to change someone’s mind equates to talking “at” them rather than talking “with” them. For a productive conversation, the latter is needed. Certain topics relevant to science and health have broad societal or political implications and can be strongly tied to individual values and identities. "Where such concerns are at play, a perceived attack on someone’s argument can easily be taken as an attack on who they are as a person," Mayer writes. Before speaking, recognize, and make peace with the fact, that success in communication does not necessarily equal arguments won or minds changed.  

It also is important to assess the position of your conversational partner. Is this going to be a reasonable scientific discussion? What is their background on this topic? Are you aware that they may be coming from a position of possible disinformation? Do they ardently fall on one side of the debate, or do they appear to take a more moderate position? Taking a moment to understand this background can help foster more positive interactions, and you can choose how to approach the conversation depending on this context.  

Listen Actively

It sounds like the secret sauce to conversational wizardry should be far more complicated, but I have found that simply listening is the key to communicating effectively with someone who holds opposing views. However, passive listening will not do; the key is to listen to understand. The hard part here is that society moves quickly, and we usually listen so we can communicate and move on with our day. We carry a sense of urgency in many aspects of daily life. When trying to converse with someone you disagree with, however, avoid listening to respond. If this is your purpose, you will be unlikely to have an effective exchange. Instead, engage with others and sincerely try to understand the opposing point of view.

Learn about others’ values, who they trust and why. Communication in the context of disagreements should be viewed as a process that evolves over time, rather than an informative transaction. Facts are important, but facts alone are often not compelling enough to move the needle in conversations on controversial issues, particularly when information is evolving. The more intimately tied one’s perspective is to their identity or values, the less receptive they may be to conflicting information, as it does not comport with who they are. Finding that honest connection leads to learning a great deal about how to communicate with others effectively. This is especially difficult when the outcomes are critical and time-sensitive, but pushing a particular point of view without truly understanding where your conversational partner is coming from could make them even less willing to hear your message.

Connecting with others on a more neutral, human level is better for laying the groundwork for positive exchanges and building trust. In addition to fostering rapport, taking this extra time to connect with someone and understand their values and concerns will help frame the information you want to communicate in a way that will be most helpful and palatable for your audience. This is the foundation of successful communication.

Tools to promote, practice and encourage active listening are widely available, both online and in print. Some of the most useful techniques, in my experience, have included:

  • Be present. Much of our communication is nonverbal, so pay attention to these cues. Be visibly present and engaged in the conversation. Try to be relaxed, make use of appropriate eye contact, if able, and nod or gesture where appropriate.

  • Repeat to verify understanding. It may be helpful to repeat back in your own words what you have understood the other person saying. This not only shows that you’re listening, but also shows that you want to understand and can help to limit miscommunication.

  • Ask open-ended questions. Seek to learn by asking questions that invite others to elaborate and provide context, and engage with those responses to clarify when necessary.

  • Empathize. If the other person expresses emotions like frustration, anxiety, hesitance or fear, then empathy can be a powerful way to connect. Imagine how you would feel in a similar position. Understand where those emotions are coming from and acknowledge their validity.

Set the Context and Expectation for the Conversation From the Beginning

This is especially true if the person you are speaking with is familiar and knows you have opposing views. Be clear from the start that you want to learn more about their perspective in a non-confrontational way, and it will set the tone for a more calm and reasonable discussion. For instance, saying “I know we don’t always agree on X, Y and Z, but I’d love to talk to you about it and understand more about your point of view,” can be very powerful, but only if there is follow through and intentional listening. By setting this expectation up front, people can successfully discuss controversial subject matter on which they disagree in a more productive way. Additionally, acknowledging that the discussion may not change the other person’s mind and reassuring that you are more focused on understanding than arguing can be helpful.

Perform a Gut Check Once the Conversation is Underway

It can be easy to try to correct or redirect the other person to your point of view. If some (or all) of the information being presented is known to be false, choose your battles wisely. Before offering your perspective, affirm anything that they have said that is true or that you agree with. This shows that you are listening to what they have to say, and you value them as individuals with their own experiences. Then, if the disagreement has a basis in fact rather than values alone, look for an opportunity to gently offer corrected information. Based on what has been learned about their values, try to offer a source that they will trust, wherever possible.

Bear in mind that oftentimes controversial topics can be closely tied to an individual’s values and identity—offering correct information is not always impactful. We see this today in the response to COVID-19, where people may consider their individual rights, bodily autonomy and personal choice more important than facts or science surrounding the pandemic. You need more than facts to truly communicate and be heard, which is why it is critical to build connection and trust with others. We often are more willing to genuinely hear the message of others when we can connect with them beyond the message itself. Again, communication is a process, and the most important thing to do is understand the other person’s perspective in the conversation. The more effectively that is accomplished, the better the chances of succeeding in broadening your understanding and sharing your own information later.

Take a Breather if Anyone (Including You!) Starts to Become Upset, Frustrated or Defensive

This indicates the conversation is no longer on a positive track, and the odds are effective communication will not occur until things cool off. Come prepared with a strategy for wrapping up the conversation and changing the subject if needed. Once the subject has been changed, do not continue to repeatedly circle back to the disagreement. This will be more likely to cause frustration and result in the other person becoming unwilling to talk to you about it at all. If the other person does want to engage again, then continue to try to communicate in a positive way.

Thank the Other Person for Helping You Understand Their Point of View, No Matter How Strongly You Disagree With Them

This brings the conversation full circle and reinforces both the positive connection that has been shared and your intent to listen to them in an honest way. Keep the line of communication open by offering to talk with them more about the subject in the future, if you wish to do so. You can also let the other person know that you are happy to be a resource for questions if you are comfortable with that.

At the end of the day, communication is going to be trial and error. What works well for one person is not necessarily going to work well for another. It will take practice reading the conversation, and it will still be frustrating at times when—despite your best efforts—it still feels as though your message is not heard. Remember that we are all human and are trying hard to do what we think is right under challenging circumstances. Think about how you would want someone to disagree with you. Focusing on the process of positive communication during disagreements may not always yield a significant change in ideas, but it can plant the seed for productive conversation down the line, and establish yourself as a trusted ear who just might have a greater impact on those ideas in the future.

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Author: Jennifer Rivers

Jennifer Rivers
Jennifer Rivers is a microbiologist and rising third year JD/MPH student, navigating life through a global pandemic in an increasingly tense political atmosphere.