Conflict Resolution

4 Tips to Help You Navigate Polarizing Conversations

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In our current social climate, participating in polarizing conversations about certain topics has become challenging and sometimes intimidating. Polarization refers to the division that can form between groups or individuals who hold opposing values, viewpoints, and beliefs on the same topic.

This division can permeate many topics, from religion to the environment to politics. The result? Everyday conversations about the world around us can become very intense. Despite this, there are still interpersonal strategies that can help people discover shared interests and mutual respect during polarizing conversations.

Four guidelines for polarizing conversations:

1. Acknowledge the Other Person’s Views

Acknowledging the other person’s views has two main components: being an active listener and validating their perspective.

Be an Active Listener

Active listening means listening closely, refraining from interrupting, stopping yourself from trying to dissuade the other person from their point of view, and avoiding the tendency to judge and make assumptions. It also means being present during the polarizing conversation and trying to truly hear the other person – even if you disagree with what you hear. This may be challenging if the topic is controversial, but active listening is essential for having a production conversation instead of a polarizing one.

Validate Their Perspective

Active listening also involves asking meaningful questions such as, “Even though I have a different viewpoint, I can still see where you are coming from.” Validating is also critical. Even if you disagree, you can still indicate that you hear the other person. Statements like, “I can see how you’ve come to believe these ideas and how important they are to you,” makes the person feel heard and can go a long way toward de-escalation if tensions are high. Chances are, they will want to listen to your viewpoint more, too!

2. Skip the Personal Attacks

During conversation, we sometimes give ourselves more support and understanding than we extend to the other person – especially if we disagree with their perspective. But the other person also believes in their point of view, just as you do in yours. Avoid creating a conversation where someone has to “win” or “lose.” Important issues are nuanced and rarely have a one-dimensional answer or point of view. Focus on the topic and refrain from showing anger or attacking their viewpoint or character. Look for opportunities to point out shared values or beliefs.

3. Consider Reciprocity

It might seem strange, but asking someone if they are willing to hear your viewpoint creates a sense of reciprocity, which reminds people of fairness and the principle of ‘treating others as they would like to be treated. If you actively listen during the conversation and validate their point of view, the other person will be more willing to do the same.

Check in to see if the other person would be willing to hear your side – remind them that it is a choice they can make and that it’s a choice you’ve already made in terms of listening to them. Another aspect of reciprocity involves sharing the why behind your belief or viewpoint. Sharing the reasons why you hold your perspective is important because it gives the other person a deeper understanding of your thought process. Let them know how you came to hold the position you have or explain why your viewpoint is important to you.

4. Check Your Own Bias

Due to confirmation bias, you are more likely to accept information that matches and aligns with your viewpoint and filter out information that doesn’t. Enter the polarizing conversation with the awareness that your brain may try to filter out anything that opposes your own beliefs. Reminding yourself of this can help steer your thought process back to nonjudgement and openness.

Also reflect on any embedded bias you may have on potentially polarizing topics like race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, etc. Consider how these embedded beliefs may have contributed to your current viewpoints.

  • Do you have any blind spots in your belief system?
  • Are you stubbornly refusing to hear a different perspective because you are so connected to your own?

Asking yourself these simple questions can remind you not to make assumptions without evidence or revert to attacking the other person because of their viewpoint.

By practicing these guidelines during polarizing conversations, you may discover even more unity than initially believed.

If you would like to learn more about polarizing conversations, visit our website. For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Jennifer Kelly

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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