The art of agreeing to disagree with others with is necessary to maintain healthy relationships with colleagues, neighbors, friends, and that uncle who uses the Thanksgiving dinner table as his opportunity to convert you to his personal ideology – but what happens when the disagreements involve the person closest to you? When partners disagree on topics that get filed under “core values”, it might be more difficult to untangle where our opinions start and our feelings about the relationship end. Managing conflicting opinions on topics that are deeply personal with our neighbors is one thing, but when you and your partner are on opposite sides on political, social, or religious issues, it can damage the relationship if it isn’t handled with care.
Listening is one of the most important aspects of communication, but most of us struggle to truly hear what the speaker is communicating. People typically listen to reply in conversations, but listening to understand deepens connections and contributes to a respectful environment that allows individuals to express their beliefs.
- Be Curious: One way to listen to understand is to approach the conversation with curiosity. Example: Your partner tells you that they are pleased with the reversal of Roe v. Wade while you have been experiencing feelings of grief, loss of control and anger. This disclosure might make you question who your partner is at their core and create a sense of disbelief. Resisting the urge to respond with reasons they are “wrong” or reasons why they should think differently and engaging in conversation based in curiosity might help you gain a deeper understanding of your partner. Think of Oprah interviewing a guest. She faces her guest, they have her full attention, she repeats what they said back to her to demonstrate her understanding, and she asks open-ended questions. A good listener sets their agenda aside and listens to understand their partner.
- Use Active Listening Skills: If you have ever been to therapy, you might have noticed that your therapist used active listening skills. One of the main components of active listening is to give the person speaking your full attention. This means putting your phone down, the kids (if you have them) are in bed and potential distractions are minimized. People are more likely to open up when they feel prioritized by their partner. Other ways to improve active listening skills are to turn toward your partner physically, maintain eye contact, and pay attention to your partner’s non-verbal communication.
- Wait Your Turn: A good listener is like a good kid on the playground: they take turns! Allow the speaker to speak without interruption. If you find yourself tempted to interrupt, this might be a sign that you are listening to respond and not listening to understand. When your partner feels understood, you can share your own views and your partner becomes the listener using these basic guidelines.
- Ask Clarifying Questions: After the speaker is finished, this is a great time to ask clarifying questions. “How did you decide that this was something that was important to you?” and “Why do you think this is the case?” are examples of clarifying questions that help us understand someone’s perspective. Follow up by restating what you heard your partner saying and check-in to make sure that they feel understood. “It sounds like your experience in a religious school is part of your feelings on the issue of abortion. I can tell that you have given the topic a lot of thought”.
The past few years have been difficult and many of us are feeling disconnected from one another. When people agree with us we feel validated, supported and connected. Conversely, when people disagree with us it feels like rejection. This is especially true when it comes to our beliefs and values. We can handle if our loved ones don’t share our passion for sushi, but when they disagree on values it feels very personal. While it might be more comfortable to be with like-minded people, we can benefit from other perspectives that encourage us to reflect on our own worldview.
If you and your partner are struggling with communication, reach out for help.