Conversation on difficult questions
June 17, 2012 6:49 AM   Subscribe

ConversationFilter: How do you talk with someone when a topic you have opposing views on comes up?

I recently learned that one of my friends holds a deep conviction in a new-age element that is demonstrably false, but ultimately non-harmful as a belief. (For the sake of this question, it could be any unfounded spiritual/paranormal belief.)

What do I do when this subject comes up in conversation?

Debunking their belief is out of the question - it would be an attack on their ego and hurt relations between us.

I've also found that trying to abruptly change the topic comes across very poorly and makes me come across badly.

What should I do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You can still be interested in something and discuss it even if you don't believe it. I'm an atheist but I find most religions fascinating. Act as though you're discussing Greek mythology with a Classicist or something.
posted by XMLicious at 6:53 AM on June 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

It really depends on how the topic comes up in conversation. Can you be more specific? (Are they proselytizing? Are you bringing it up? Etc.)

Lots of things are sort of loosely faith-based, even something mundane like being a Knicks fan. A lot of the time it's possible to discuss those topics in a way that "right" and "wrong" don't matter. By discussing the merits or excitement of Jeremy Lin, that doesn't mean that I'm swearing off my beloved Celtics. By discussing your friend's meditation practice, that doesn't mean you agree with them about whatever aspects you actually disagree about.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:08 AM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've also found that trying to abruptly change the topic comes across very poorly and makes me come across badly.

Practice this skill while also just listening to a part of this person's life which interests them.

Imagine if you were in some foreign country where the native populace held all sorts of religious/spiritual/magical views which you do not hold. If they started talking about the The Great Beetle Spirit or whatever, you wouldn't try to debunk them or anything like that, or at least I hope you wouldn't. You'd either just listen and appreciate what they're saying, or you'd just get used to it as part of the background thrum of their existence.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:09 AM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

As long as the person is sharing their personal experience with it, treat it like a neutral topic that you have no views on - just listen and provide the appropriate conversational cues (nod, mhmm) to indicate that you're listening, and then let them shift the conversation to a new topic when they're ready. For example, when my mom starts talking about how the ideas she gets in church must be divinely inspired, I pretend she's telling me about a conversation she had with a friend or about taking the dog to the vet--something that isn't going to make me poke in to suggest that maybe her ideas are a result of her of self-reflection.

If the person knows you have different views and what they're saying is meant to pull you into a debate, it might be fine to politely state that a debate on the topic could get ugly, and therefore you'd rather talk about something else. (Or at least that's what my siblings tell me I need to do with my mom when she's looking to convince me that she's right or convert me.)
posted by Terriniski at 7:13 AM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding J. Wilson - how does it "come up"?

If they are proseletyzing, you have every right to set a boundary and say that it's not a belief you share, and you'd appreciate them not trying to convince you of it.

If they're just making conversation, then...I guess just treat it like they were talking about some TV show that they really, really were excited about but you didn't quite care for.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:14 AM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is tricky, because there are some issues I can have different opinions on and still respect my friend's opinion, but there are other things where I just can't listen to someone talk about something without losing respect for them. And it has very little to do with the ultimate harmfulness of the belief. I think part of it is that I have very low tolerance for people around me believing things that are demonstrably false; I have a very practical and scientific worldview and I get along best with people who have a similar worldview.

Like, if a friend is going on and on about how Space Star Ordering has changed their life, I can't stop myself from thinking, "Wow, my friend has no critical thinking skills at all." On the other hand, I can have a very rational and useful discussion with someone who has different views from me on abortion rights, even though I think that's a much more important issue than some goofy belief system, because those arguments are mostly not dependent on claims of fact.

I get what others are saying about taking an anthropological view of things, and that's fine with acquaintances and family members, but if I found myself having to take that view with a close friend, I would probably start dialing back on the friendship, because it seems like a sign that we are not that compatible. This may be why I don't have a whole lot of friends. :)
posted by mskyle at 7:18 AM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd add "accept that you're going to be a little bit uncomfortable in the conversation" - don't be under the impression that there's a hack that will make talking about something you don't believe in and your friend does totally simple. It isn't the same as if your friend likes Kirk and you like Spock; there's a built in asymmetry in the conversation because you are maintaining a mental distance and thinking "this line of reasoning is bullshit but I can't let my friend see that I think this or we will mess up the friendship" while your friend is thinking straightforwardly "let's talk about homeopathy!"

Also, detach your ego - I think it's easy for folks who are argumentative to feel on some level that silence is agreement or endoresement and thus that silence is threatening to the ego since it involves endorsing something incorrect. (Which is half true on ethical questions - silence around racist comments sucks!) But anyway, if it's just homeopathy, detach your ego and remember that you are not, you know, implicated just because of your friend's belief.
posted by Frowner at 7:22 AM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I used to have a very hard time especially when the subject of religion came up. But these 2 things changed my point of view to try to listen and understand why a person believes what they do even ifI don't hold the same belief system:

• [This is actually from Carl Sagan's science fiction story 'Contact', when the scientist finds that others do not believe her experience in the space ship with the exception of a priest who she previously antagonized about his beliefs.] Although there is the objective world, there is also a subjective world - and none of us truly knows what another person experiences, and that in itself may underlie a person's belief system. But just because you can't perceive something, it doesn't mean another person has not. Can you really see what he or she experiences? Wouldn't this be a foundation for believing or not believing something?

• You are not always guided by your frontal lobe. Although everyone would love to believe that our frontal lobes (judgment, planning, etc.) guide our decisions and what we do and we believe - are you kidding? Other things come into play whether it your amygdala reacting with anxiety to something, or your basal ganglia overacting and having obsessive thoughts over topic Y.These things alter our perceptions and we can't tease it out of our perception of the world. So do you know which one of your beliefs/decisions/actions are rational/not rational? Probably not. So as one human being interacting with another, have compassion rather than believe that you are in possession of supreme logic.

But sometimes truly listening and asking questions as to why someone believes something is fascinating and even moving. Someone may believe in A,B,C, because they lost their mother or father and heard a voice from the other side speak about the topic later. Or maybe it is an elaborate belief system that reaches the point of an entire world. Sometimes these are even more elaborate that any science fiction that you can pick up and it is fun - so you don't even have to pick up a book to escape and enter another world, just listen to the people around you.

posted by Wolfster at 7:38 AM on June 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've found that it's different depending on whether it's an issue I have a personal stake in. If it's really something I don't really care about myself -- like when my co-worker told me she believed in demonic possession -- then it's easy to say "oh... is that something you've observed?" Then I get to hear a (hopefully interesting) story about something she thinks she saw, or a book or whatever; rather than having an awkward bug-eyed silence.

But for certain topics that are deeply offensive personally, I haven't found a better solution than changing the topic, sometimes with a smiling "well I guess we can go ahead and agree to disagree about that."
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:39 AM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm pretending your friend is into homeopathy for the purposes of this conversation.

So I guess if you have a cold and she says "You can cure that with essence of bullshit" or whatever, you can just reply "thanks, I'll look into that." If the conversations you're having are more elaborate than that, I think you're going to have to give us more concrete examples, perhaps using homeopathy as your sample belief?
posted by DarlingBri at 8:04 AM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

As a radical leftist who works in a conservative setting (a cigar store) I frequently have customers who engage with me on some (to me) pretty outrageous conservative political positions, assuming that because of where I work I must share their political views. Given the power imbalance inherent in working a subsistence job in a customer-service-oriented position, I am sort of compelled to politely go along with whatever they are saying and make them feel heard, but in such a way as to somehow maintain a semblance of personal integrity. I've found this to be a rather delicate art and also very useful in daily life.

What you want here is to be diplomatic, so as to preseve good relations with your friend and keep the conversation smooth, but to avoid saying anything dishonest or which compromises your personal feelings on the matter. You want to provide the minimal satisfying response, often a bit more than a "mm-hmm" or a "yeah" (which can come off as really seriously condescending and dismissive if you use them too many times in a row).

You respond to the bits of what they are saying that you feel you can honestly agree with -- if they tell you terrorists are plotting to blow up all the bridges on the Mississippi, you say "that would sure be terrible". If they say they've been visiting a homeopath for their allergies, you say "I really hope that's been helping". Continue in this way until they've spoken their piece on the matter, and then gently redirect the conversation so that it moves off in a safer direction (this is an art unto itself).

Then, silently congratulate yourself for a successful bit of clever conversational footwork, make a note not to bring up that subject yourself in future conversations with this person, and move on.

The above advice assumes that they are the ones bringing up the topic, and that they are not doing it in an evangelistic or adversarial way. If they are being conversationally aggressive about it, you need to smile and tell them that you don't really want to go there. If you are bringing the topic up, then stop that!
posted by Scientist at 8:10 AM on June 17, 2012 [17 favorites]

a new-age element that is demonstrably false, but ultimately non-harmful as a belief.

I like to see people I care about happy, so I tend to employ a variation of "I'm glad that your belief works for you/brings you peace/makes you feel good" in situations like this. My family is religious and I'm not so there have been a lot of times when people prayed for me or sent me inspirational bs or asked me to be godparent to their kids. There have been times that I've actually been envious; I mean, f-ed up things would make sense and there would always be someone to lean on if I had religion. So I tap into that and am happy for them that they have it.

I'm also trained as a massage therapist and there is a great deal of woo on the edges of that, so when people get into auras and chakras and energy fields and all that, I say I'm glad that works for you (because I sincerely am glad for them). Me, I need a well-placed elbow grinding along my right upper traps/levator to get relief, so that's what I offer my own clients & that's what works for them. If someone else believes that hovering their hands 2.2 inches above a client's body while chanting works, and the client believes it works, then it works even if I think it's hooey.

There's room in the world for all kinds of beliefs, and as long as they're "ultimately non-harmful" like your friend's, then just be happy for them that they've found something to believe in that gives them some solace in this f-ed up world.
posted by headnsouth at 8:11 AM on June 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

Someone very close to me has a worldview which is very far away from rational-scientific (where I would firmly place myself), and it's been really eye-opening for me as I come to understand this and try to make sense of it. Because I care about this person, rejecting/disproving/changing the subject is off the table, which means the only option left was to engage with it. Actually engage, as in try to understand what this person's reality is like, and what causes them to believe what they believe. I've learned a few really startling things.

First, reality is much more malleable and subjective than I thought. If you've ever had an altered-state-of-consciousness experience you might understand that there are ways in which the brain inserts symbolic information into your fields of perception so that what you perceive is not strictly objective reality, but rather some form of objective reality layered with emotional and informational content. For example, the face of your mother is more than just skin, eyes, nose, mouth. It's Your Mother, and everything you feel about her is inextricably linked with what you perceive when you see her/hear her/smell her. But of course this extra layering is a subjective experience. I've learned that what I thought was objective reality is not as objective as I liked to think. Not that there is no such thing as objective reality (there is, of course), but that we are kidding ourselves if we think we are perceiving it free of confounding layers. I have become especially convinced of this because this person in my life unquestionably experiences a much higher degree of symbolic layering than I do, and her descriptions of the reality we are both perceiving are very different from mine. For various reasons I believe a lot of this is a brain-wiring kind of thing.

Second, this emotional and informational layering is something that people are able to tune into, explore, and control, to various degrees. It is especially potent in the case of human-human interactions; some people are incredibly perceptive regarding other people's emotions and states of mind (and others less so). But even in the human-built and natural worlds, we tend to agree that some places are emotionally powerful (cathedrals, tall trees, the Grand Canyon), that there is such a thing as beauty, and that there is value to whatever kind of emotional layering our brains tend to insert into our reality. In other words we have something to gain from being tuned into this.

Third, and this is something I am only beginning to understand, a lot of religious, spiritual, and new-age beliefs and systems have something to do with tuning in to this stuff. Call it the supernatural. The supernatural doesn't have to exist in reality in order to have power; really the ideas of God or spirits or mystic energy or whatever are some kind of shorthand metaphor for understanding the strange way in which our perception of reality is distorted and the way we respond emotionally to these distortions. These belief systems have arisen to fill a vacuum for understanding the inner self for which I would argue there is not yet a strong scientific alternative. Science cannot tell us why we perceive beauty and it cannot precisely define beauty (correct me if I'm wrong). Now. It may be silly to think that a crystal (for example) holds power, but it is equally silly for a crucifix to hold power -- and yet the latter does hold power for many people, because they believe it holds power, and therefore it does. And even if the belief system is nonsense to you, it may hold power for the believer (your friend), and thus it may help them tune in to the world and enhance its emotional power, thus enhancing their life. And of course there is a problem when one tries to project these belief systems outwards into the physical world, because they exist only in people's minds, and therefore their power is only in people's minds. But this does not mean that they have no power whatsoever; only that it is limited to within people's minds. There is a crucial distinction.

In summary, you might try to understand what this belief system offers your friend, how it has enhanced their life, and if there is something you can learn from it. Go in with the assumption that they are not deluded or mentally ill but rather that they have made a personal discovery that has some benefit. Maybe you'll learn something.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:39 AM on June 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

If they're proselytizing, then it is perfectly acceptable to tell them "hey dude, this is a subject on which we will never see eye to eye, so let's appreciate that neither one of us will try to change the others mind and get on with the business of being friends!" If they press their views on you, then it's really not you who is being jerkish or unreasonable.

If it's you bringing it up, stop bringing it up.
posted by elizardbits at 9:46 AM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I usually say "Well, I think that's a load of old pony, so we'd probably best change the subject." I don't have any friends that would be hurt by that. Sometimes they actually relish arguing, so that result is okay too.
posted by Decani at 10:36 AM on June 17, 2012

Others said it already, so I'm just going to reinforce the advice that basically yeah, as long as they're not pushing it on you and trying to convert you, and as long as they're not madly obsessed with it and it's not dominating their life, and they are a friend of yours - well I would assume you do care about them and if it's something they enjoy, you should learn to see it that way too. Try and let go of any urge to debunk the idea, and any urge to judge that person in the first place based on that alone (if you're friends, you must like other things about them right?). Again, assuming they bring it up in a nice non-invasive way, they're sharing with you something very personal, so at that level it is something you should appreciate and respect.

I like the comparisons made above with favourite sports teams or tv shows - and oh yes by all means it's a very different things in nature, we're talking belief systems, but, in the end, in the grand scheme of things... they can be almost as irrelevant... especially among friends, because friendship is about so much more than having the same ideas on everything, even on the "big" questions.

And as a friend, you could even try and be curious about what's in it for them, why did they come to believe that, what's their own unique personal story that led them to that belief. Personally, at least, I find that fascinating, the personal/psychological side of it, even more so as as skeptic myself, because to me all religious/spiritual belief systems are only personal and cultural constructs anyway. So if I'm interested in a person who believes something I don't, I'm interested in their own journey to that belief. It's not the belief itself but how they got to it, and how they deal with it in daily life, that tells me something about what kind of person they are. I don't feel any need to argue on beliefs unless we're specifically having a discussion, an argument for intellectual or political purposes. That's a different thing. That's "debunking mode", not "personal interest/friend" mode. You know? Learn to differentiate the two and you'll enjoy the company of a lot of people with different, interesting stories... this is something I've learnt to appreciate more and more in life (more than just hanging around with people who think exactly like I do, really, that can be boring!).
posted by bitteschoen at 10:56 AM on June 17, 2012

Totally depends on how people are feeling. If there's defensiveness or anger, just don't talk about it at all. You're probably not going to change your friend's mind anymore than your friend will change yours. Just saying "We probably shouldn't talk about this" and laughing has worked for me.

If, on the other hand, you just disagree, keep it cool and respectful and you could both learn some crazyshit.
posted by OrangeDrink at 11:01 AM on June 17, 2012

What has worked for me (liberal with a lot of variously shaded conservative family) is "Tell me more". Either they expand the idea with a thoughtful reasoned out conversation to which I can respond politely and sincerely or they hang themselves with their own words which ends up with both of us laughing at absurdities.

I'm not mean about it, and I have ended up with absurdities too.
posted by francesca too at 11:09 AM on June 17, 2012

I find that when I discuss a topic with someone and discover that we have opposing viewpoints, I try to ask myself this question: Based on how the person is talking about this subject and what I know about this person's personality, do I think that there anything I could say or any evidence I could provide them with that might sway their position on this topic?

It is essentially about whether or not the person is open-minded enough about the issue that it would be worth my time to offer my point of view.

If the answer is yes: I will try to politely offer my own viewpoints while still listening to the other person's viewpoint. I genuinely strive for a back-and-forth debate on the issue. I try to be open-minded, just like I hope he is being open-minded.

If the answer is no: I will ask listen to the other person's viewpoint and ask polite questions to try and understand it better, without presenting my own viewpoint at all. I don't try to end the conversation just because he is not open-minded; I genuinely try to understand what's going on in his head. "Tell me more. Help me understand." Regardless of whether I feel that the person's position is correct, this is an opportunity for me to learn about how and why he got to this point psychologically.

This method took me a while to develop. I like it! I don't waste my breath trying to convince people who won't be convinced, and I come away better informed about another side of the issue and/or a person's psychology. Parenting, religion, education, sex, politics — you name the multi-sided issue, this method works for it.

Applying it can sometimes take a lot of patience — especially when the issue discussed is one that I feel strongly about too, and I feel that the other person is the only one getting to share — but after, I'm always glad that I did.

And for what it's worth ... you can apply this method on MeFi, too! ;) Though it typically involves more reading and less commenting, ha.
posted by hypotheticole at 11:38 AM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I encounter this fairly often, usually (ironically) from people whose intelligence I greatly respect. Here's how I deal with it.

1. If it's advice, I assume it's given with good intentions and receive it that way. A smidgeon of diversion helps. They say, "Wearing solarinite can help rebalance your chakras and solve your slipped disc." I ask, with interest, "Really? What's the story behind that?" I regard it (as suggested upthread) as a kind of folklore, and I don't think listening to it implies assent. And if they think I assent, so what? Really, what's lost? I'm not on this earth to prove that my beliefs are superior to those of well-meaning friends.

2. If it's just a discussion of how their psychic healer cured their rheumatoid arthritis, or whatever, I don't feel the need to weigh in, any more than, as an atheist, I feel the need to inform people who tell me they were cured by praying that NO THEY WEREN'T BECAUSE THERE IS NO OBJECTIVE PROOF OF GOD AND WHAT ARE THEY, STUPID? I'm sincerely happy when any friend feels relief or comfort from any affliction, regardless of the reason.

3. In the grand scheme of things, human beings really don't know shit about shit. Think of all the things people "knew" as little as a generation ago that were proven wrong; think of all the things no one knew about that have been discovered. No, I don't believe in new-age woo. But I do believe that we know so little about anything; I consider new-agery a way of acknowledging mystery and trying to understand it, even if the methodology is terrible.
posted by ROTFL at 11:46 AM on June 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Since the person is a friend, it's a little easier. You might even be able to use humor. Try to imagine their mindset: are they trying to persuade you, or are they just so into the subject that their enthusiasm carries them along? Do you think they genuinely want to have a real conversation with you, i.e., an exchange? Take into account what they want out of the talk you're having. Most friends actually do want to share in a conversation, and they don't want to bore or offend or ponificate.

You can participate by shifting the conversation to something personal, instead of whatever theories are being explained. I get agitated when one friend starts going on about sending positive thoughts into the universe and thus inviting material goods and other desired outcomes into her life. Recently I said, "That doesn't resonate for me at all. How has it played out in your life?" She said, "I'm more optimistic about the future and it's easier for me to take steps to change my situation." I agreed that that's a good way to feel, asked for an example, and then we talked about her real-life experience.

I have another friend who'se involved in her church and super-interested in religion. I once asked sincerely, "Why do you go to church; what do you like about it?" I got a really honest answer based just on her experience. That was interesting to me, and it got us away from her general statements about why people need GOD, and so on.

With either of these friends, I can joke a bit about their enthusiasm. I don't joke about God or about the energy of the universe, though! I don't think that would go over so well.
posted by wryly at 1:08 PM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Master the art of changing the subject, repeatedly if necessary. Usually this involves asking the other person questions about some other thing that's of interest to them.
posted by hermitosis at 1:40 PM on June 17, 2012

It depends a lot on the person and their disposition. If they think the truth is obvious and I just need convincing, I try to politely dodge, change topics, defuse. If they're willing to explore the topic, find out which things they think count as evidence or reality and how those differ from me, I find these topics often fascinating, so long as I can similarly suspend my need to argue / prove myself right. It can be interesting to hear what structures other people's internal lives. I have a perfectly rational friend who prays for events he cares about. I think that is impossible/meaningless. But we both value exploratory conversation, and can qualify our views with our own subjectivity, so it can be discussed in good humour.
posted by ead at 6:52 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

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