Whether you’re a teacher, parent, legislator, or activist, you probably know this: the topic of education opens doors for disagreement. And navigating those disagreements is not exactly a piece of cake.

When it comes to exchanging words with someone who holds a different opinion from you, do you shy away, or lean in?

It’s easy to lean in when talking with someone you agree with. That kind of conversation is naturally exciting and inspiring.  But talking with someone you disagree with can be more complex…maybe even stressful. 

As someone concerned about educational issues, you know that if you shy away, important conversations will be left by the wayside. To you, the topics you care about aren’t just theories. They’re real issues that impact children’s lives every day at school!

Let’s say—for example—you’re a proponent of performance-based assessments such as standardized testing. You have strong thoughts about the benefits of standardized testing, and you think children deserve the best approach!

How should you talk with someone who disagrees with you? Do you have a hope of persuading them to see your perspective? To have an effective conversation, start with being aware of your mindset, motivation, and method. 

Let’s break it down.

1. Monitor Your Mindset

Being unaware of your frame of mind is one way to guarantee that your conversation will end poorly.  Conversely, self-awareness about your mental state can give you an edge and help you facilitate a productive discussion. 

Are you disappointed that your state is about to implement progress monitoring instead of standardized testing? Are you frustrated that educators and other parents don’t understand or care about your point of view? Maybe you’re excited and passionate about sharing your viewpoint. Whatever your mindset, in what ways might it help or hinder conversation? 

For example, if you’re feeling angry, that anger could creep into your tone of voice. If you sound antagonistic, people tend to get defensive and stop listening. If you’re feeling passionate, you may be so excited that your conversation partner has a hard time following your logic. 

How is this helpful? 

If you’re aware of what’s going on in your mind, you can open yourself up to mindset changes and new information. Bernhard Schroeder with Forbes Magazine says, “Having a growth mindset means relishing opportunities for self-improvement.” 

Self-improvement may look like changing your opinion, understanding your own opinion better, or becoming a better, more understanding listener. In either case, there’s no losing. Talking with someone you disagree with, no matter the outcome, is an opportunity for one (or both!) of you to grow.

2. Determine Your Motivation

Next, why do you want to have this particular conversation? 

Do you want to convince someone of your opinion? Do you want to understand them better? Do you simply want to present your side with no expectation that they’ll see things your way? These questions help determine whether you want to have a discussion or a debate

What’s the difference? University of The People describes it this way: “Debaters aren’t there to be open, they are there to win. By contrast, people participating in a discussion are usually open to one another’s opinions, and there is a chance the opinions can be changed in a discussion.”

Both debate and discussion have their place. If you’re talking to a school board member, your intent may be to “win” because you hope to convince them of your opinion. If you’re talking to a fellow parent, you may be more inclined to an open discussion. In either case, it’s important to communicate respectfully.

Know that whatever your motivation is, the person you’re talking to may not share your goals for the conversation. Your intent may be to discuss, while they intend to debate—or vice versa! 

Being aware of this fact can help you in complicated conversations. When motivations differ, the conversation may not progress as expected. Your conversational opponent may become hostile, stubbornly dig in their feet on a sticky subject, or get tired of disagreeing and walk away!  

That’s okay. You can’t force everyone to have the same motivation as you! And you certainly can’t control the outcome. But you can be aware and learn in the process. 

3. Know Your Method

Your “method” is the actual action you take in a disagreement. Here are a few practical pointers to keep the conversation civil:

  • Listen actively. Active listening requires actually paying attention. If you are distractedly thinking about what you are going to say next, you are not listening. How can you engage fairly if you haven’t even considered the other person’s views? 
  • Ask open questions. Here’s how Marc Vollebregd defines open questions: “While you can only answer closed questions with a yes or no, with an open one, you can answer as you’d like.” Examples of open questions include, “What influenced your understanding of testing outcomes?” and “How do you see progress monitoring affecting our students in a positive way?” Yes or no questions have a way of dead-ending a conversation. Keep things open and moving with probing, insightful queries.
  • Be genuinely curious. You may be certain that they’re wrong…but it’s unlikely that they believe what they believe for no reason at all. Cultivate a desire to truly know why they believe what they do and what shaped their opinion. You may find unexpected common ground.
  • Don’t call them dumb or stupid. There are plenty of intelligent people who disagree with each other. Even if they make a foolish argument or don’t fully understand the situation, you won’t persuade anyone by laughing at their intelligence. Kindness and logic triumph over heckling and name-calling.
  • Share the air space. Don’t spend more than your fair share of time talking. You know how off-putting it is to be talked at rather than talked with. Don’t be that person.  
  • Watch your body language and tone of voice. Create an amicable environment by using a calm tone of voice, relaxed body language, and respectful facial expressions. You may have a right to be angry—but when was the last time you wanted to have a conversation with an angry person? At all costs, avoid condescending behavior. Science of People says, “When someone is being condescending, they are showing superiority in a passive way.” Some examples include sarcasm, eye-rolling, and dismissive remarks. No one appreciates that in a conversation!

Most importantly, remember the golden rule:

  • “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” The golden rule may sound like a thing of childhood, but it still makes a great guide for shaping fair and respectful communication. If you knew someone disagreed with you, how would you want them to interact with you? Do that for other people. 

Keep on Learning

Talking with someone you disagree with can be uncomfortable. 

Important topics are at stake and tensions are high. But disagreement isn’t bad! If the point is to learn, healthy disagreement can benefit everyone. Whether you learn things that change your opinion—or just learn how to have an inconclusive disagreement—you can’t lose.  

Whether or not you agree with his political stance, William Clinton had the right idea when he said, “Just as war is freedom’s cost, disagreement is freedom’s privilege.

And if you happen to disagree with his politics, now you know how to have a good conversation about it!

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