How to agree to disagree and keep relationships in tact

Whether it’s politics or mandatory vaccines, hot button issues can turn the most peaceful dinnertime conversation into a battleground within seconds. Here’s what to do.

We’re now less than a month away from the federal election and it’s almost impossible to avoid talking politics.

One minute you’re chatting about the kids and the next you’re embroiled in a heated exchange about the electoral merits of A, B or C.

A 2020 study by the American Psychological Association found that 40 per cent of adults found the political climate in the US had caused strain between them and their family members.

And it’s not only politics.

Vaccination status, racism, religion, climate change and many other topics can also be the trigger for differences of opinion that can escalate into fiery debate.

Regardless of how strongly held your beliefs, there’s every chance they don’t match those of the people closest to you, says conscious communication expert Karina Chapman.

“For those who like a bit of a drama, arguments are the perfect excuse to create a show,” Karina says.

“Disputes can easily become heated and sometimes cause irreparable damage to relationships.”

Here are some helpful tips to de-escalate angry conversations, or avoid them altogether.

1. Actively listen to what’s being said

If you want to discuss your beliefs, you need to make a genuine effort to understand those of your family or friends, Karina says.

“Try to suspend judgement and listen with a curious mindset and respond rather than react to what’s been said,” she advises.

“People feel validated if they see that you’re actively listening.

“If you vehemently disagree with what you’re hearing, say something like ‘that’s an interesting idea or concept’ to give you some space between what you’re thinking and your reaction.”

2. Don’t play ‘factoid tennis’

Vaccine researcher Associate Professor Katie Attwell from The University of Western Australia knows only too well how differing opinions over vaccinations can lead to heated conversations.

“I call it factoid tennis — people lob a factoid and think if I let it just go past, they’ve won the point,” Katie says.

“Ask yourself before you engage, ‘what’s the purpose of this conversation’?

“If you’re being served with unsolicited factoids and you go back with guns blazing, you’re not going to achieve the outcome you’re looking for.

“Simply say: ‘I don’t agree with you, but I’m not interested in playing factoid tennis, so let’s agree to disagree and not talk about this anymore’.”

3. Be human first

To have a “better argument” you have to remember you care about the other person, not just their opinion about an issue, suggests Karina.

“And that means your need to separate your relationship from the disagreement so that you don’t say things you don’t mean and ruin the friendship,” she says.

“Breathe deeply and use humour, it’s a great way to lighten the mood.

“If you’re sitting around a whole table that’s erupted into arguing, you need to disrupt the pattern and change the focus.

“Try jumping up and gesturing with your hands that dessert is ready!”

4. Be conscious of your body language

Studies by Dr Albert Mehrabian, a researcher of body language, famously found that only seven per cent of communication is from the words we speak, with 38 per cent conveyed through tone and 55 per cent through body language.

While later studies have put the actual words we use at closer to 30 per cent, it’s clear that our body language, facial expressions and our voice are all super powerful.

“If you’re fidgeting or tapping your feet or looking away, people will think you’re not interested or your discounting their opinion so try and keep your facial expression pleasant and don’t lean into their personal space which may make them feel cornered,” Karina says.

5. Dodge boozy arguments

Avoid any sort of heated discussion if one or more of you have been drinking.

Alcohol-fuelled debates have been known to end many a friendship!

Written by Liz McGrath.