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How to navigate a tense conversation in these contentious times

These days, you may find yourself locked into a conversation with someone who doesn’t see things the way you do.Peter Polak/ADOBE STOCK

“In our culture right now, we are really, really divided,” Eben Weitzman tells me. He’s the graduate program director of conflict resolution at University of Massachusetts Boston, but it doesn’t take an expert to see how high tensions are in this country. Just log on to Twitter, turn on cable news, or step out into the world to get an idea.

Whether it’s at a happy hour or a holiday dinner, conversations are bound to turn political — and at times, contentious — rather quickly. And you may find yourself locked into a conversation with someone who doesn’t see things the way you do.


Sometimes, it really is best to avoid those conversations altogether — and in that case, you can just walk away (or subtly ask to sit next to a different uncle on Thanksgiving). However, “if it’s an important relationship to you, or you think it might be deepened or improved by a real engagement,” then it might be good to have a conversation, Weitzman says. Here are a few steps to make sure it stays productive.

Listen without judgment

“If what you want to do is get to a mutual understanding, really inquire to understand,” Weitzman says, by asking questions to understand how the other person came to their standpoint. “Listen with interest, and without judgment.” In short: Bite your tongue, and open your ears.

“Actively look and listen, be curious, seek and demonstrate genuine understanding of the other side,” says Alain Lempereur, professor and director of conflict resolution and coexistence at Brandeis University. “Surprise them by truly listening to them, by giving them the floor first.”

Allowing the other person to voice their opinion — with nary an interruption, eye roll, or scoff — lets them feel not only heard, but respected. Granting space and comfort to openly speak reduces tension and lessens any desire to retort, lay blame, or debate. “That very act itself tends to defuse a situation,” says Jim Ferrell, managing partner at The Arbinger Institute and coauthor of “The Anatomy of Peace.”


Acknowledge the other person’s views

Beyond being a nonjudgmental ear, it’s good to let the other person know that you recognize what they’re saying as important to them.

“A lot of the time, people are afraid that if they acknowledge that something is important to the other person, that they’re saying it’s right,” Weitzman says. In reality, “it’s OK to acknowledge that the other person feels this way,” he adds. “That’s not agreeing with what they’ve said [or] adding legitimacy to it.”

Ferrell agrees: “People, in general, respond well to being regarded more than being agreed with by another person.” Letting the other person feel heard is a good practice in compassion, and it doesn’t at all dilute your position.

Be honest and share your point of view

After giving the other person the opportunity to speak freely about their side of things, now is an appropriate time to do the same.

“If you think it is helpful and possible, present your viewpoint in a way that is adapted to your audience,” says Lempereur, quickly adding, “Keep the empathy high.” Be sure to speak without agenda and without trying to convince the other party that you’re right.

Beyond merely sharing honest thoughts and opinions, Weitzman says it’s wise “to share any doubts you have about your own position. You can be committed to one position, but also worry about the flip side,” he points out. “Rather than making you look weak, this can help the other person see you as thoughtful, as human, and can help to bridge gaps.”


Stay even-keeled

When and if tensions start to rise, it’s best to take a breather. Beyond the self-preserving benefits of counting to 10, the conversation will lose value if things escalate. “You’re unlikely to change anyone’s mind in anything that feels like a confrontation,” Weitzman says, especially “if they feel attacked [or] pressured to accept your point of view.”

“If there’s an underlying enmity, it’s still going to create resistance and escalate the tension,” Ferrell says. “People respond primarily not to what we’re saying to them, but to how they believe they’re regarding them,” so watch your tone and body language, too.

Lempereur says to keep an eye out for signs of “frustration, anger, contempt, fear, suspicion,” in both yourself and others. Try to be empathetic and intuitive enough to see when and if it may be time to take a step back for the other person’s sake, as well.

Take a break if you need to — and know when to walk away

“There are tense conversations where the topic itself is loaded, but there’s another kind of tension that you can actually feel: your body constricting, your blood pressure rising,” Ferrell says. “At that point, there’s actually nothing productive that can come of that by going further.”


Sometimes, it’s best — and necessary — to take a break or pause the conversation indefinitely. “If you feel you are getting angry, take a break. Pretend you have to take a call or ask a friend to accompany you to the bathroom,” Lempereur suggests. “Withdraw for a while — or for good — whenever you feel you are close to losing control. Remember: You cannot change the world and a person in one conversation.”

Things you should say

Try asking questions with the intention to disarm and really understand the other person, like:

■  “What does this mean to you?”

■  “Why is this important to you?”

■  “What led you to feel this way?”

■  “I know this is important to you.”

“Sharing personal stories can be really powerful in learning about one another,” Weitzman adds.

And things you definitely should not say

Avoid inflammatory, judgmental, or emotionally charged statements, like:

■  “How could you even think such a thing?”

■  “Don’t you know that . . .”

■  “That is so stupid/evil/ignorant!”

■  “You clearly haven’t thought about this.”

“You don’t want to say anything that challenges the other person’s morality,” Weitzman says, which means avoiding “anything that amounts to belittling or attacking.”

Jessica Teich can be reached at