7 Tiny Strategies To Help People Be Civil Again, According To A Therapist

How to have a conversation with someone you don't agree with.

Conversation Mike Jones | Canva 

Learning how to connect with people is important, but it seems to be much trickier these days.

The volatility that’s been playing out is only getting worse.

As the saying goes: "Fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride."

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Not surprisingly, the behavior of politicians, media pundits, and social media wars resemble the exact behavior of couples on the verge of divorce, as well.


Knowing how to connect with people saves you much heartache.

For far too many people, the gloves come off when the decision to end a marriage has been made.

Is that healthy? Not really.

But when you’re in the throes of deep, psychological pain and fear, how fair can you play with your adversary? It’s an important question to ask when the stakes are high.

In a marriage, the stakes may include your children, your self-esteem, or even your bank account. When it comes to communities, you're risking violence, your reputation, and even the future of relationships you hold dear.

If this matters to you, finding a way back to the discussion table is really important. It requires a willingness to listen to someone whose opinion makes your heart ache and your blood boil.


Do they feel the same way about you?

It’s hard to try to understand someone else's pain, especially when they've hurt you or said hurtful things.

Resolving divides is never easy.

It takes time, compassion, courage, empathy, and sometimes, it still doesn’t work. People just can’t come together, but they can at least try.

"But, I've been trying!" you may say.

In the age of disinformation and "fake news," it’s easy for people to hear the same discussions and come to wildly different conclusions.

Agreeing on what’s real and what’s not has been... well... rough.

But if you want to find a way out of the fighting, finding a middle ground is necessary. When that's hard to do, it’s easy to fall back to your corners, arms crossed, with the belief that you’re right and they're wrong.


If your motivation is to find this middle ground by "trying," consider that what "trying" means from your perspective may be very different from what "trying" means in a therapeutic sense.

Most people believe that "trying" means they either did their best to change the other person’s mind, or they tried to tolerate what they find intolerable.

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Both of these options are set up for failure. Why? Because success for either one means you get your way.

Your experiment to change their mind worked, or somehow, your ability to white-knuckle something worked. You learned how to tolerate the intolerable.


What if "trying" actually means something different?

What if you could hold your truth but open your heart to hearing another person’s pain?

When two people can do that, anything is possible. You can repair a hurt, you can heal a wound, you can even find forgiveness. That is what true connection is all about.

Remember, Gandhi once said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Connection, in its truest sense, means seeing the other. When you do this, you're actually "trying."

"Seeing" the other doesn't mean you agree with them. But it's the first step to take before you can engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue.

Admittedly, none of this is easy. But right now, it couldn't be more necessary, and it's a great opportunity to practice some relationship skills.


Keep in mind that we're all human — perfectly imperfect, messy, and doing the best we can.

Here are 7 tiny strategies to help people be civil again, according to a therapist:

1. Don’t get into the fight

Fighting only begets more fighting.

If someone behaves in an antagonizing way, whether it’s on a social media post or in person, tell them that you would like to understand their point of view. But only in a kind and respectful manner.

2. Model what a respectful dialogue looks like

It starts with you. Practice reflective listening by saying, "I hear that you're saying XYZ, did I get that right?"

This creates a pause in the discussion and slows down the stress response. It also signals to the other person that you're curious, that you care, and that you are invested in hearing their thoughts.


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3. See if you can listen for vulnerability

What hopes and fears are underneath their words? What most people want is to be seen, feel understood, and believe that they matter.

What most people fear is that there’s something wrong with them and that they don’t matter.



4. Avoid telling them they're wrong when you disagree

Instead, tell them that you get how angry or scared or sad they are, but you just see things differently. See how they respond to that.


If they want to stay in the fight, continue to validate that you hear their pain and wait until they're quiet.

5. Ask if they're interested in hearing where you're coming from

If they say "yes," then state your perspective simply and from the heart.

6. Speak simply and from the heart

This means speaking for your pain and not from it. You can say things such as, "I get scared or angry when I hear XYZ."


If you find yourself starting to shout or name-call, know that you're now speaking from your pain, which is another way of saying that you are "acting out."

This doesn’t get you what you most want, which is to be seen, heard, and validated.



7. See if you can agree to disagree

This is the key to trying and the key to being happy in any relationship. But, it’s not always possible.


If things start to heat up and get tense, see if you can table the discussion and revisit it when both of you have had a chance to calm down.

If the other wants to continue fighting, walk away and say, "I wish we could have talked, but it’s too volatile right now for us to try to even understand one another. Perhaps another time?"

But, avoiding a civil war means engaging with others in a different way — even others that you may not like.

And yes, some people lie, manipulate, and do really bad things. They're not motivated by working for the greater good, and it’s best to avoid them.

But most people do want to find a way to work things out. And the only way to get above all the noise is to not make any more of it.


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Maura Matarese, M.A., LMHC, R.Y.T. is a licensed psychotherapist and author of Finding Hope In The Crisis: A Therapist's Perspective On Love, Loss, And Courage.