5 Ways to Prioritize Connection in Polarizing Conversations with Friends

Your friendships matter to you… because you’re here. 🙂 Or maybe you feel like you don’t have many friends. Or maybe you feel alone and unheard in the friendships you have.

Judging by the response from so many of you on my last post – “Can we talk about why friendship feels hard sometimes” – a lot of us are in the same boat, and we feel the relational tension.

We want meaningful friendships. We don’t want to be judged or belittled for our opinion, and we also want to feel heard and understood. I think most of us want to be able to have thought-provoking conversations with family and friends and come out on the other side better; personally, relationally, intellectually.

I know I do. If you do too, I hope this helps!

But it’s hard.

I’d love to get better at this. So, I’d also love your input.

Sometimes we prioritize people’s perspectives over people themselves, and we miss out on all kinds of rich conversation. I feel like the world would be an even scarier place if our personal convictions matter more than our relational connections. Somehow firmly held beliefs or opinions now dissolve relationships and it makes me sad.

What are we missing when we let conviction trump connection?

Meaningful relationships with people that think and see things differently are important. I really believe that understanding different people’s perspectives makes us better thinkers and better humans.

And it’s hard to have a meaningful relationship with someone we don’t understand.

“How can she think that?”
“How can he say that?”
“Why would they do that???”
“People are nuts.”

Different perspectives make us squirm and we want to check out, I get it.

What if we prioritize personal connection ahead of personal conviction?

One doesn’t need to cancel the other.

Through my own social missteps, controversial questions, and challenging conversations, I notice things that draw me closer to people and things that drive division.

While I was writing this post this podcast interview with Francesca Gino came out and maybe we should just all listen to that? If this topic matters to you, you’ll love her!

If thoughtful conversation and meaningful friendships matter to you, I hope this helps you navigate the difficult, polarizing subjects of our lives. I’m no expert at this but I really care about it, and this is what I notice. How about you?

5 Ways to Prioritize Connection in Polarizing Converastions with Friends

1. Replace your Conviction with Curiousity

If you don’t feel known or heard in a conversation, the other person likely won’t either. So, it can start with you. And me.

When a polarizing topic comes up in conversation with friends, respond with curiosity instead of your convictions. Everyone is more likely to feel heard. That doesn’t mean you need to leave your brain behind or decide your ideas don’t matter. They do.

Curiosity keeps your heart open to the person and your conversation about listening, not just being listened to. That’s not just my own observation, but social psychologists talk about the same thing….

Being closed to a person’s perspective closes you to the person. This is perhaps the problem, period. We’ve lost curiosity.

Try on curiosity and see what it does for your heart. 🙂

The next point can help with that…

2. Stay Humble

This one is married to the curiosity idea.

You and I are not omniscient. But sometimes we can treat our ideas as so absolute we get puffed up on pride and unable to hear other perspectives because all we think about is our own. I’m guilty. We use phrases like “Nothing will change my mind…” or “I’ll never think otherwise…” Those phrases don’t just kill personal connection, they harden our hearts.

Your and my human brains are… human. We can’t possibly know everything. So let’s not act like we do.

If you want a healthy dose of humility and inspiration for curiosity, read Think Again. Adam Grant does a powerful job of exploring the beauty of rethinking and being wrong.

I love his idea that “we need to develop the habit of forming our own second opinions.

What subject do you only have one opinion on?

3. Find Common Ground

Naturally, common ground creates personal connection.

Just the fact that you’re talking to another human gives you common ground. Emotion. Mortality. Humanity. I tend to think we all have far more in common than we do that divides us. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to see.

When having a polarizing conversation, listen for and identify your common ground. Say it out loud without a “but…” You’re not abdicating your convictions, you’re prioritizing connection.

And you and I will be better heard and understood if we can hear and understand. Don’t forget, hearing and understanding do not mean we are agreeing. It means we are listening and finding common gorund that connects us as people.

4. Tame your Physiological Response

When something we believe is challenged or opposed, our bodies have a physiological response. Like meeting a threat in the wild, our body meets a threat in our mind.

It’s wild, really. And it’s one of the things that make polarizing conversation so difficult – when you believe something strongly and are presented with information to the contrary, your body reacts. You might notice your heart speed up, you feel jittery or clammy, your mind might race, you might shut down and shut off. (check out this cute illustration about how this works – give it its time, it’s worth it, excuse the swears. 🙂 )

The same part of the brain that responds to physical threats responds to intellectual ones. (study from the University of California’s Brain and Creativity Institute)

This is one of the reasons having polarized conversations with people you want a meaningful relationship with is so important, and having them online publicly with strangers is so problematic.

If you can tame your physiological response to information that challenges what you believe, breathe slowly, and remind yourself you are safe, then you can proceed in a conversation that creates deeper connection.

5. Reinforce the Value of the Relationship

Take “cancelation” off the table. Refuse to belittle. If the friendship matters, stay it.

Rejection is a real fear. We might not even say it that way or give it conscience attention, but it’s an undercurrent of a difficult conversation worth acknowledging. Will we be rejected? Ghosted? Deleted? Looked down on?

If your conversation is digital, describe your tone. “My tone here is curious, not combative. I’m interested in what you think.” or “I really appreciate you taking the time for this.” or even something as playful as “I think you’re great, I love how you _____, just so you know!

If you’re talking with a friend in person, thank them for talking about a sensitive subject. Appreciate them.

And if you can’t do that with sincerity or the relationship really doesn’t matter to you, maybe don’t engage in a polarized conversation to begin with. Nobody wins and everyone loses.

Reinforce the value of the relationship with what you say.

What would you add?

This is not an exhaustive list, but I hope it’s helpful what you think about polarizing conversations with people you love.

What do you think? What did I miss?

What do you do to have meaingful conversations about polarizing subjects?

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