How To Communicate With People Who Disagree With You

How To Communicate With People Who Disagree With You

Research suggests oral, not written, communication works best.

by Michael Grothaus

We’ve all been there: those times you need to argue your point of view to someone who you know disagrees with you. You immediately go to your keyboard and start to type out that 280-character tweet, the Facebook reply, or a paragraphs-long email. Surely the reason, logic, and sheer power of your written words will convince whoever it is who disagrees with you to see your point of view? But new research suggests these written arguments may not be the best approach.

That research was conducted by Juliana Schroeder, assistant professor of management of organizations at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues. In Schroeder’s study of almost 300 people, participants were asked to watch, listen, and read arguments about subjects they agreed or disagreed with, including abortion, music, and war. They were asked to judge the character of the communicator and the quality or veracity of the argument. Schroeder’s team found that the participants who watched or listened to the communicator were less dismissive of their claims than when they read that communicator’s same argument. 

Schroeder’s findings have obvious implications for all forums for communication, especially those in the workplace. The idea for her study came from a newspaper article about a politician, she told the Washington Post:

One of us read a speech excerpt that was printed in a newspaper from a politician with whom he strongly disagreed. The next week, he heard the exact same speech clip playing on a radio station. He was shocked by how different his reaction was toward the politician when he read the excerpt compared to when he heard it. When he read the statement, the politician seemed idiotic, but when he heard it spoken, the politician actually sounded reasonable.

Schroeder’s research also found the participants who listened to or watched the communicators talk were also less likely to dehumanize them–a phenomenon where we subconsciously belittle or demonize the cognitive capabilities and moral attributes of people who hold views other than our own. So whether it’s convincing a stranger that #MeToo matters, discussing  politics with a friend, or explaining to other board members why your vision of the company is the right one, here are three tips to communicate effectively to give your argument the chance of being truly understood.


We live in a world of digital, primarily text-based, communication. While that is great for convenience (you can read a message when you want to), Schroeder’s work suggests that’s horrible for times when you need to convince people who disagree with you, as people are more prone to dehumanize you when you communicate in writing.“The intuitive tendency to dehumanize opponents stems, in part, from the fact that we’re unable to directly experience another person’s mind compared to our own,” Schroeder told me. “Instead, we have to work backwards from another person’s known belief (say, ‘Gun control is bad’) to his or her unknown thinking or reasoning. A seemingly nonsensical belief, the inference process goes, comes from a nonsensical mind.”Of course, sometimes we have no option but to communicate via text. If this is the case, it’s imperative to be extra attentive to your choice of words and phrases. Using non-emotive, fact-based, to-the-point arguments are the best way to combat the reader’s natural penchant to dehumanize you.



Ideally, you’ll want to always choose to convey your argument in person if you can. “Hearing a message from a political [or other] opponent can humanize the opponent, compared to reading the same message,” said Schroeder via email. “One reason for this seems to be that variance in communicators’ natural paralinguistic cues in their voices (e.g., tone) can convey their thoughtfulness.”While this may be impossible to do with the anonymous masses on Twitter or impractical with all of your Facebook friends, in the workplace, speaking to someone in person often involves nothing more than walking a few doors down to their office. And that’s exactly what you should do if you need to convince that boss or colleague of why your blueprint for the company or project is the right one.


But even if you don’t work in the same building as your colleague, or live in the same state or country as one of your Facebook friends you’re arguing with about gun control, you’re not out of luck. It’s now easier than ever to communicate with people by voice or video call. So before sending an email or posting a message, open Skype or Facebook Messenger for an audio or video call so the recipient of your message can hear the variance and paralinguistic cues in your voice.Only as a last resort should you try to communicate with someone who you disagree with over social media. Twitter’s limited text allowance and social media users’ short attention spans make arguing your point an uphill battle.  

Originally published in FastCompany on January 11, 2017 by Michael Grothaus.  Michael Grothaus is a novelist, freelance journalist, and former screenwriter represented worldwide by The Hanbury Literary Agency. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books.

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