Top image: Etiene Boulanger/Unsplash.
This is the first story in our series on How To Disagree Productively.
We’ve all been there: the moment when you realise, through a haze of righteous rage, angry tears, or bitter resignation, that what started out as a civil conversation is now a smouldering trainwreck.
Maybe it was your partner’s offhand comment about your ‘sensitivity’ that set things off; maybe it began as an earnest attempt to ask your conservative, Christian friends about that Joanna Theng video. (Or maybe someone on the Internet said something.)
These days, the art of disagreeing civilly seems headed for extinction—at the cost of the chance for positive change. We don’t have to love one another or die, but we do have to live together in the meantime. And we know that progress doesn’t come about by agreeing more, or disagreeing less, but by being able to approach conflict—an ordinary human experience—constructively.
So why is it so hard to listen, or feel listened to? How do you engage with someone when you think they’re being unreasonable, offensive, or simply wrong? How can we attempt reconciliation, especially when some rifts seem beyond repair?
We thought: who better to ask about this than someone who helps people work through their differences?
We spoke with Dr. Sara Delia Menon, a clinical psychologist with 15 years’ experience, who is currently in private practice at Alliance Counselling. In her current capacity, she works with individuals and couples to address issues ranging from anxiety and depression to relationship issues.
Q: What are your objectives as a couples’ therapist?
A: Ultimately, my goal is to facilitate dialogue between two individuals, and to eventually get them to a place where they can do this on their own. I try to give them an environment and support them with skills development, such that they are ultimately able to dialogue about anything, whether it’s a ‘goals and dreams’ discussion or a conflict situation. The basic building block of any relationship is being able to express yourself.
Q: So the goal isn’t necessarily to reach an agreement, but simply to get parties to understand where the other is coming from?
A: Absolutely. I think if the goal is agreement, that’s where a lot of relationships end up in hot water. It’s natural to want to be agreed with, but it’s not always achievable. We get into all these battles over who’s right and who’s wrong, and in the end, the relationship loses. Understanding is a much more fulfilling and achievable goal, and in any relationship, it’s much more powerful to start from building a bridge of empathy.
Q: That’s interesting—I’ve sometimes wondered whether, when I say, “Please listen to me,” I’m really asking for someone to agree with me! What’s the starting point in learning to recognise this distinction, especially as arguments happen in real time?
A: Natural conversation is very different from deep listening. It’s fast-paced, and often, when someone is talking, we’re listening, but we’re also already tuning in to our own beliefs and assumptions. Moreover, when we’re speaking, a lot of us have not been taught to speak for ourselves; we slide into framing things as ‘you think this’ or ‘you shouldn’t do this’.
So one of the very first things I try to get couples to do is slow things down. In a conversation, many interventions involve a clear listener-speaker structure. I try to get the speaker to frame things from their perspective: I feel, I see, I think. And the listener’s job is really just to press pause on their reality, and try to absorb what the speaker is saying.
Q: Do these principles apply to relationships other than romantic ones—say, with parent-child relationships or group discussions, or even strangers?
A: I would say that universally, everyone wants to be heard, so the skill of deep listening applies across the board. But different kinds of relationships have different power dynamics.
In a romantic or marital relationship, the assumption is that it’s an equal partnership, and that these people have committed to making this partnership work. A parent-child relationship has quite a different dynamic; there are cultural differences and generational differences. Meanwhile, in workplaces, there are issues of hierarchy, and we don’t prioritise emotion and feeling the way we might in an intimate relationship.
It’s also hard to say in the context of a general disagreement—say, with a stranger, where there is no existing relationship. A lot depends on how easily you can walk away. If you have to keep engaging with this person, you might approach the conflict very differently.
There are lots of things that would make communication vary slightly, depending on what is appropriate for each situation. That’s just how it is. We simply have to work with things as they are, and try to find a way forward.
Q: We’re all guided by our subjective experiences, which means that people can end up perceiving the same situation completely differently. How do you navigate ideas of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ when people have contrasting notions of what the truth even is?
A: Again, I think the first step is to establish deep listening. People often say ‘I know, I know …’ but without really hearing what the other person is saying, without judgement. The next thing is building that bridge of empathy, which we do by offering validation. For example, I might say, “Sophie, not only do I hear what you’re saying, but it makes sense to me why you think this way, because of XXX reasons …”
When that happens, that feeling of right and wrong dissipates a bit. I’ve reached out my hand and said, “I may not see what you are seeing, but it makes sense to me that you see what you see. Now, can I tell you what I see?” Then the process is reversed, and you get to also tell me: “Sara, what you see is so strange, but it makes sense to me because of how you’ve been trying to explain it …”
Once that bridge has been formed, how you feel on a physiological or emotional level is very different. The ground is very soft, and that helps you begin to consider what compromise—or a solution, if there is one—might look like. Or it might end in apology, and that in itself could be a resolution.
If I think you’re attacking me, I might be defensive. It’s like a wall goes up. But if you offer me empathy and understanding, it’s like a key that opens a door, and that’s where the connection happens.
I think the first step is to establish deep listening. People often say ‘I know, I know …’ but without really hearing what the other person is saying, without judgement.
Q: To be honest, this all sounds easier said than done. I’ve found it hard to get past that initial emotional reaction, especially when speaking about something that concerns your life directly, and that you feel strongly about.
A: It’s important to recognise when we’re in a state of ‘flooding’. When our blood is racing, or our heart is pumping, we go into fight-or-flight mode. That’s the worst possible state to have a conversation in, because you’re so overwhelmed it’s just not physically possible.
When this happens, the goal really should be to regulate. Press pause on the conversation, acknowledge that it’s just going to be unproductive if it continues, and calm yourself down until you’re able to listen effectively. And either party can make a choice to turn the interaction around—the onus isn’t only on one person.
Q: What else helps keep discussions constructive?
A: Different practitioners all have different methods. I’m personally very influenced by the Gottman Couples method, which is very evidence-based.
The Gottmans identified four behaviours which are toxic in relationships: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (when you just shut someone else out). These can really derail relationships.
Take anger. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but explosive anger or passive-aggressive anger can be like fireworks—nobody likes to approach someone who is spewing lava. You’re just left feeling more indignant, and it’s an endless, vicious cycle, because going down the same loop doesn’t just fail to solve the problem, it also makes you feel worse. So it’s really about identifying unhelpful patterns, and being willing to try something different.
Another thing I tell clients is that it’s not only about skills, but recognising that no matter what, we have the ability to repair.
You can’t approach disagreements thinking, “This is my one chance, and that if I screw this up it’s all over.” That’s just so much pressure, and no one can live up to that. You have to believe in repair—that you can come back from injury in a relationship and say, that went terribly, but let’s try again.
Q: What about when disagreements hit an impasse? How do you rescue a conversation when parties seem to have dug their heels in?
A: When that happens, I think it’s key to go back to what your own objective is.
There’s another therapeutic model called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Under this framework, in terms of interpersonal skills, there are three considerations which can be helpful in deciding what’s most important to you. Is it to have your objective met? Is it how you want the other person to feel about you? Or is it how you want to feel about yourself?
It’s difficult to achieve all three at the same time, so you have to take yourself through them and ask what you actually want, because that shapes your approach.
For example, if you want your objective met, then you might choose to stand firm and draw your boundaries. If it’s about how you want to feel about yourself, then you would prioritise being authentic and asserting yourself. If it’s about how I want you to feel about me, then it’s showing you that I’m listening, or that I can agree with you.
How transparent we are of ourselves changes across relationships, and our thresholds for resistance change with different people. With strangers, it’s always easier to just disengage and walk away in a way you can’t with personal relationships.
It’s hard, but I think this whole ‘kumbaya, let’s all try and get along’ ideal simply isn’t realistic. And I’m not saying it’s wrong; it really is just how it is. There’s no single approach, and that diversity is normal and necessary.
Q: What’s your take on the notion of the ‘middle ground’?
A: Coming at this from the Gottman framework, I think the middle ground for me is basically compromise. How can we meet each other somewhere (whether in the middle, or not)? And compromise is premised on understanding. If I don’t really get where you’re coming from and vice versa, it’s just lip service, and there’d be lots of resentment and no real follow-up.
You have to start from empathy and validation, and then ask: what are my absolute non-negotiables? It’s like a series of concentric circles, where the bulls-eye is your non-negotiables (e.g: no matter what, cutting my friend off completely is not an option). The outer circles are the movable pieces where you might be willing to compromise, which is where we try to find a way forward. Every situation will have these movable parts.
In a couples’ context, at least, conflict is very likely to be recurring. Research shows that in a couples’ context, 69% of what they fight about are ‘perpetual problems’—two to three core things you keep revisiting from the time you get into the relationship to whenever it ends.
The thing about perpetual problems is that there is actually no solution. But in healthy relationships, couples navigate this by constantly finding ways of compromising and adjusting, like by using humour, or giving the benefit of the doubt.
Q: So one way to disagree more effectively is to recognise that it might never end?
A: Yes! Honestly, conflict is healthy. It really, really is.
Traditionally, in couples’ counseling, the idea is that we should try to get to a stage where we don’t fight any more. But one, that’s not realistic, and two, it may not even be healthy. When you have couples who say, “We never fight,” often what you find is emotional disconnection in the relationship. The depth of knowing and emotional intimacy is quite shallow, and they’re like passing ships. Or it can seem very calm, but no growth is happening.
The thing about conflict is that it provides an opportunity for connection. It’s when we’re in need, and someone is there for us, and there’s a positive outcome, that the relationship really deepens. Contrast this with good-time friends: you might have great times with them, but when you really need help, you might not call on them for support.
In relationships, conflict really presents a profound opportunity for connection. If we’re in a dark place, but manage to get through it together, it’s like—wow. My level of trust and commitment to you just skyrockets.
What did you think of Sara’s advice? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.