How to get along even if you disagree

If there’s one thing most people today can agree on, it’s that we live in a highly divided world. So, what can we do about it?

The first step toward connection and acceptance is understanding. To understand how we got to this point, let’s look at three basic patterns of human nature:

  1. We like to be around people who are like us. Similarity provides comfort and security. This tendency to cluster into compatible groups is called “sorting.”
  2. We’re wary of being around people who oppose us because that feels uncomfortable and scary. So we band together against common “enemies,” creating an “us” and “them” mentality. This is known as “othering.”
  3. We strengthen our groupings by sharing stories that reinforce our beliefs. This makes it harder to really hear alternate points of view, and it’s called “siloing.”

The narrowing effect of the world wide web

It’s no big surprise that social media makes it easier for these patterns to take hold. You don’t need to physically move to a neighborhood where you’re surrounded by like-minded people — although that is happening, too — all you need to do is like, follow, and subscribe to those who share your opinions and avoid those who don’t.

That’s when things get really dangerous. The more you separate yourself from the “others” you disagree with, the more your own opinions intensify and the harder it is to see reality for what it is. Studies have shown that members of opposing groups often have exaggerated beliefs about each other’s positions. And this skewed perception makes it harder to relate to each other.

“I never thought of it that way.”

The key to overcoming the powerful forces that are tearing relationships and society apart, according to author Monica Guzman, is to become more curious. Being genuinely interested in another’s experiences and perspectives breaks down the walls between us and builds a bridge that can connect us. Curiosity allows us to see each other as individual people, not as members of a group whose ideas we feel obligated to prove wrong.

Let curiosity be your guide

Try these strategies to boost your curiosity — and open your mind to more meaningful connections with a broader diversity of individuals:

  • Ask yourself, “What am I missing?” This is a great way to ignite your curiosity even when you thought you already knew everything there was to know about a topic.
  • Collect knowledge. It’s hard to ask questions about something if you don’t know what it is. The broader your baseline knowledge, the more opportunities you have to be curious.
  • Reject certainty. Rarely is any situation as black and white as it may appear. Look beyond the easy answers to the nuances of a topic, even if it means acknowledging you’re not as sure about something as you thought.
  • Embrace complexity. It’s natural to want easy answers to hard questions. But unfortunately, there’s no simplifying tough issues. Try digging a little deeper into a complex issue — when things feel confusing, it’s a sign your understanding is expanding.

Let’s talk: How to have a bridging conversation

In her book, “I Never Thought of It That Way,” author Monica Guzman defines “bridging conversations” as ones that help us understand each other by letting ourselves explore the spaces between our perspectives.

To have a bridging conversation, all you need is a willing mind and a little time, she says. She also suggests this experiment:

  1. Start a conversation by asking another person a question.
  2. Listen to their answer carefully and then ask a follow-up question based solely on what that person said in response to your first question.
  3. Listen carefully again, and then ask another follow-up question based solely on their most recent response.
  4. Repeat.

Using this approach allows conversations to go in surprising new directions — helping you learn more, explore issues more deeply, and spark more “I never thought of it that way” moments. Give it a try!

“I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times,” Monica Guzman, BenBella Books, Inc., 2022