Wearing a mask. The behavior of police. The capabilities of Donald Trump. There’s no shortage of topics right now ready to raise your blood pressure. These are important to discuss, but they’re so charged that engaging with certain family members and friends can feel like an exercise in futility. Both parties get defensive, and what started as a conversation immediately morphed into a heated arguments, where you think, “How can you be so wrong!?”
When you’re engaged in a contentious debate with a stubborn friend or family member, it can feel like you’re caught in feedback loop that results in nothing but anger and frustration. Nothing can truly solve this. But there is a psychological tactic that can not only arm you with the tools to better understand the mechanisms behind someone’s opinion —and, maybe, just maybe, lessen the hardness of their stance — but also control your own emotions and keep yourself from falling into the same traps. It’s called motivational interviewing. Used wisely, it can help break that feedback loop.
First, let’s back up. During hot-button debates, while it’s easy to arrive at “How can you be so wrong?, this type of stance is best avoided. We know, we know, but there’s a good reason for it. “It’s a judgment,” says Robyn Landow, a New York City psychologist. Some stuff, like state capitals and Cy Young Award winners, can be Googled in three seconds. The other stuff, while certainly not devoid of myriad examples backing them up, isn’t constrained by facts. “Here’s the good news: In the battle of opinions, no one is wrong,” she says. “But the bad news is that no one is right.”
That lack of certainty is hard to accept, because, well, you are right, and only you know the special words that will lead the other person to eventually say, “Oh thank you for changing me.” But usually the opposite happens. Challenge someone and they dig in. “We respond to offense with defense,” Landow says. The conversation, then, becomes just about winning a fight with you slogging it out as well. “It’s about emotions. You react because you feel threatened,” adds Silvia Dutchevici, a licensed clinical social worker and president of Critical Therapy Center in New York City.
When it’s family or friends you still want to move the other person, or at least try. One lesser-known option for convincing someone to, say, wear a mask or understand that defunding the police doesn’t mean doing away with them altogether, is motivational interviewing. It’s a technique therapists use, often when speaking with patients who are dealing with addiction or weight loss – symptom-oriented issues that can be targeted, Dutchevici says.
The motivational interviewing approach is to listen without judgment and ask empathetic questions, like, “Would you help me understand why you’re feeling that way?,” “How would you like things to be different?,” and “If you could change one thing, what would it be?”
The intent is for people to figure out why they’re behaving a certain way and be motivated to change. This approach could work in a conversation, but certain things need to be in place. Most importantly, you have to respect and trust each other. Also realize that the technique is manipulative, but Landow says that influence isn’t necessarily bad, depending on the goal. If you’re looking to change someone’s mind, you might as well smash a bottle and try to reassemble it.
But it will keep a conversation going, and provide openings to challenge someone along the way, as long as you remain genuinely curious, Dutchevici says. You internal guiding question is, “Why does he think that?” So, when the “wrong” stance comes out, your opening question is, “How did you get to this belief?”
Then listen. You’ll learn beyond the headline, maybe about past trauma or that this is what his parents believed, Landow says. But listening and understanding doesn’t mean you have to stay neutral, Dutchevici says. You can push back, with, “How’s that approach been working for you?” Again, you can only do that if there’s a relationship, and the answer could be, “Great,” or, “It’s tiring,” or, “Never thought of it that way,” but the person comes to the judgment on his own.
If it’s an opinion that feels egregious, you can say, “I’m offended by that, so I’m not going to talk about it anymore.” It’s direct and honest, and chances are that the person has never been challenged in that way, and if it comes from a friend, it might cause some self-reflection, Dutchevici says.
Take it a step further with, “I understand what you’re saying, but I want to let you know that what you believe hurts me, and I’ll be happy to tell you why.” With this tactic, you’ve told them they’ve been heard, usually an appreciated move, and you’ve de-escalated the situation by taking it out of the theoretical and making it about you, an actual person. “It’s okay to make it personal, because it always is,” she says.
As much as it’s possible, you want to find common ground. Dutchevici suggests saying, “Imagine what it would be like if …” You make the person switch roles and the conversation shifts as well. Say, for example, the topic is Confederate statues and your friend doesn’t have a problem with the old generals. You could use a variation with, “What names shouldn’t ever be honored?” After most likely agreeing on Hitler, keep going, assessing each person, building a list. Maybe you get more consensus. Maybe you shift your thinking – that’s part of staying open – and maybe your friend eventually realizes that they all should come down.
But the change in approach gets everyone off the usual talking points. “You’re creating something new and you’re both engaged in it together,” Dutchevici says. In the end, there might not be any movement, but the original source of conflict might have been that you never established any limits. Once you do, you discover that while you don’t agree, you might not disagree on everything. “That’s a lot less stressful now,” Landow says.