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How to support someone with a different or opposing point of view

posted 17 Jul 2017, 16:41 by Suzi Wallis   [ updated 17 Jul 2017, 16:57 ]
Imagine you have been approached by a friend, family member or colleague. They are distressed about something that is directly related to a belief they have. This belief or view is not one you share. You believe that your point of view might help ease their suffering. What do you do?

Firstly, ask yourself what is going to be most helpful initially here? The majority of the time, the answer is empathy or compassion. Many people in distress just want to be heard - they don't actually want to hear what you think, at least at first. Empathy, acknowledging how they feel, and naming what you see ("you seem sad", "that really sucks", "I can see you're distressed") is a fantastic first step. Many people will then expand on what's going on, and feel better as a result. If they already know you don't share their point of view, they have shown extreme courage to approach you in the first place, and this action is a reflection of the desperation they are likely to be feeling.

The gentle pause from the listener is a powerful technique for opening someone up and helping them to feel safe in your presence. If you interrupt with your own words too quickly, they may feel shut down. Non verbal indicators that you are listening like eye contact, nodding or "hmmm", and minimal verbal encouragement like  "yes" or "carry on", all help someone process their emotions and potentially find their own solutions to feeling better.

One of the worst things you can do is share your opinion when it hasn't been asked for. This has the impact of minimising the other person's feelings, and can potentially create a disconnection between you and them. It's like saying "your feelings aren't important" or "my opinion is superior to yours". If your opinion is an opposing one to theirs, this effect is magnified. It is up to you to fight your internal battle - if you think their belief is hurting them, it's not actually your responsibility to change it. 

If they do ask what you think, that's a different story, and one that still needs to be approached with care. Gently share your view with a starting statement like "This is what I've found helpful to believe in this kind of situation" or "I see this differently to you, and I respect your opinion" or "We have what might appear to be opposing views on this, and both are valid."

The other benefit of not sharing your point of view unless it's asked for, is that the distressed person might get to a different belief place in time, if they are given the space to talk about their own perspective first. They might be able to hold your ideas in their mind for a while (the ones they already know about you) and mull them over. If someone else's beliefs (yours in particular) have been imposed on them, especially while they are upset, the chance of them defending their own view internally and/or externally is stronger. Most people don't like being told what to think or what to do - we all want autonomy in our lives and minds.

Remember this article applies to some of the most controversial topics - politics, health/medicine, religion, environmental issues - and also to any belief that is different from our own. You have the choice to be a supporter or an opposer - which one will bring more harmony to your world?

Suzi Wallis | Aug 2017