If Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev can maintain their composure during their first meeting of The Cold War, then you can stay calm during an argument.
Reagan and Gorbachev just couldn’t reach an agreement. They had a massive meeting in Geneva but couldn’t make any headway because they couldn’t agree on anything.
In the end, Reagan stood up to leave and, halfway to the door, he turned around and said, “Actually, you know what? Let’s just start over. My name’s Ronnie. Let’s just get to know each other.”
And by doing that, he helped Gorbachev feel a little more at ease. They sat down, had a conversation as two people rather than two sides of an argument, and found common ground.
You might not be leading a country, but you can take a page out of Reagan’s book.
Everyone you disagree with is still, at the end of the day, just another person. There’s a way for you both to talk to one another in a calm and rational manner regardless of how deep the disagreement goes.
It all comes down to a few things:
1. SET YOUR EGO ASIDE
The first and most important step you have to take is setting your ego aside.
That means letting go of your ideas and opinions because it’s the only way to achieve full empathy with the other person. It also means not lashing out when someone disagrees with you, or not being overbearing toward the other person.
Even in a work environment, if you feel told off, you may react like a petulant child, because that would be a dynamic that suddenly feels familiar to your brain. You may start getting heated.
Equally, if you become overbearing toward somebody else — e.g. speaking directly with a dominant opinion — then they may work against you on purpose.
Unfortunately, two people who are playing the roles of a grumpy child and a frustrated parent rarely solve anything together.
Instead of recreating the parent and child dynamic, you need to aim for the middle path — the “adult” path. You have to consciously aim to keep your tone warm, speaking slowly and softly, while using objective words.
Objectivity is key, and that’s where setting your own opinions aside comes in.
2. PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES AND FIND COMMON GROUND
Once you’ve set aside your ego, the next step is to genuinely try to see the world through the other person’s eyes.
I like the phrase, “In order to walk in someone else’s shoes, you have to take your own shoes off.” You have to let go of your world perspective so entirely that you can completely flip around as if you’re on the other side of the table. What does that person’s life look like?
Every person you meet is fighting some kind of private battle that you know nothing about.
This is key to human compassion — you have to realize that the other person’s frustration often has nothing to do with you. It’s everything that’s happened in their life up until the beginning of that moment.
I always tell people to try and spend the first 70% of a disagreement focusing on empathy, because what people want to do is empathize for 5% of the conversation, and then spend 95% fighting their corner.
Remember: Empathy doesn’t mean you agree with that person. It’s simply a starting point for finding common ground.
3. BRIDGE YOUR VIEWPOINTS TOGETHER
After you’ve found a common starting point, you can start building a bridge between the two very different ideas on the table.
A really effective way of doing this is to prompt for more information from the other person. You say, “Okay, tell me more,” or, “Can you give me some more details around your perspective?”
Essentially, you want to encourage them to talk.
Often, when they’re presented the opportunity, they’ll think, “This person cares about my opinion.” It can help them feel less upset and like they’re allowed to have a voice. It’s important to keep this in mind when you’re listening to their argument.
Imagine you’re standing where they are and reflect back to check that you’ve understood. Use a soft tone, and avoid judgement or opinions of your own.
Juggling all of this together can be challenging, so this can be a good moment to check your breathing and composure.
You may have a tense stomach, a high heart rate, or your whole body might feel tight. Do a quick body scan up and down. Is there a place where you are holding tension? Are you clenching one of your fists underneath the table and not even realizing it?
When you release those areas you will feel more at ease and ready to collaborate.
4. CONSIDER A THIRD PERSPECTIVE
Finally, imagine you were having the conversation in a bar or relaxed environment with friends. Consider how you would react if a friend came up to you feeling upset and you wanted to ease their pain. You can channel how you’d feel in that situation and apply it to the current disagreement at hand — even if you have opposing opinions.
Think to yourself, “If I were having a beer with this person, I’d be really human with them. I’d be nodding along, giving them a palms-up gestures, keeping all the focus on them, and just letting them talk about their opinion.”
Once you’ve established this tone, you can collaborate together to find not only common ground but a new focus that you agree on. You can list out things you’re unhappy with — or things you’re both happy with for that matter — and go from there toward a solution.
Now, even after all of this, it’s very possible that you’ll still disagree with the other person at the end of the conversation. You won’t always find a resolution to an argument.
But it’s key that you’re able to walk away peacefully.
Yelling might seem like the best thing you can do at the time, but if you’re burning bridges with people, it’s rarely the answer to that conversation. By pulling back from your own ego and finding common ground together, you can focus on what really matters and approach disagreements calmly with a collaborative mindset.
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