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If you want to connect, park your disapproval

Updated: Mar 26

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A fascinating newspaper article caught my eye recently about how to have better, more constructive arguments.

It’s by Ian Leslie, adapted from his book Conflicted, and explains that to have a productive conversation with anyone you  have to establish some kind of connection with them, a rapport. This is especially so if you know or suspect that you’re not both on the same page.

In other words, it’s important to try to connect with the person before challenging their ideas or opinions.

He discusses some pretty intense situations – hostage negotiations, for example – and reports from his interviews with the experts involved that one way to build rapport is to explicitly signal to the other person that you’re not going to verbally attack them or put them down in any way. In doing this you also signal respect.

As Leslie says, 'By being personally gracious, you can depersonalise the disagreement.'

Now, this might seem like simple common sense. But common sense is often not common practice. In daily life, when we hear someone say something we don’t like the temptation is to do exactly what is not advised. ‘I can’t let you get away with that,’ we think, and instantly go into rebuttal mode.

But Leslie and the experts he’s interviewed are right. Whether it’s expressed in words, a look or a tone of voice, disapproval disconnects.

At the very least, it causes the other person to shut up and withdraw. Often it simply produces an argument that goes nowhere, with attack and counter-attack traded back and forth like a bad-tempered tennis match.

Feel the disapproval and listen anyway

On the other hand, when we resist the temptation to express our disapproval all sorts of unexpected possibilities can open up.

I’m a Samaritans listening volunteer and one of the things we’re trained to do is consciously suspend our negative reactions when callers want to share something that we might think is unpleasant or unacceptable.

In short, feel the disapproval and listen anyway.

I vividly remember doing this with a caller who – after going around the houses for a while – confessed to routinely hitting his wife when they argued. Thanks to my training I managed to park my feelings and encourage him to say more.

Perhaps he was surprised that he hadn’t heard any condemnation, but he revealed that his father had not only regularly beaten his mother but had beaten him too, from the age of four, often with the buckle-end of his belt.

Of course, this didn’t justify his current actions but it did give me an insight into what had shaped them. It also gave me a basis of understanding from which to explore with him how he might change his behaviour.

Challenge with empathy

This is an important point. Parking our disapproval doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge something we do actually disapprove of, even abhor. It’s a question of when and how in the conversation we do it.

As the psychologist Professor Gerard Egan famously observed, ‘Empathy without challenge is anaemic. Challenge without empathy is caustic.’

We rarely have to listen to shocking confessions in our day-to-day conversations, let alone negotiate with hostage-takers, but the same principle works here too. We use it all the time in creative conversation – understand first, check before challenging, challenge with empathy.

For if we can manage to park – even temporarily – our disapproval of contrary views and opinions and strive to establish a connection with the other person, who knows where that exchange might lead?


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