View All Articles

Say This, Not That: 5 Phrases to Improve Discussion

Disagreement, debate, and differing opinions are all good things. They help us balance each other out, share ideas, and move forward as a society. Unfortunately, these days, such discussions can swerve into dangerous territory very quickly. It doesn’t take long for a simple disagreement to turn into something much nastier: a situation where feelings are hurt, egos are wounded, and rifts end up much deeper than they were before. The sad thing is, this kind of damage is easily avoided. In fact, I’ve come up with 5 simple phrases that could help anyone work through a disagreement in a more productive, meaningful way. In this “Say This, Not That” post, we’ll discuss the phrases you should use if you want to improve conversation and keep disagreements from going awry. 

(A note about format: I’ve chosen to use a “say this, not that” format not only because it helps you with what you should say, but also with what you shouldn’t say. As you read these “say this, not that” phrases, pay attention to both of them. Also, remember that this isn’t an exhaustive list. Anything similar to the example phrases are also definitely worth keeping in mind. Focus on the spirit of the phrases, rather than the specific phrase itself.

For more content like this, check out our recent post: How to Be Unapologetic AND Kind.)

“People don’t listen to understand. They listen to reply. The collective monologue is everyone talking and no one listening.”

Stephen R. Covey

Say this: “I’m listening.”
Not that: “You’re not listening.”

I once heard someone say that the reason people shout is because they feel like they aren’t being heard. While we could take that as an excuse to shout ourselves (“No one was listening to me!), I think it serves us better when we see it as an invitation to listen to others. 

I understand that it’s frustrating when you’re arguing with someone and you feel like you aren’t being listened to. But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, you really only have control over what you do, what you say, and how you treat others. In other words, you can’t make someone listen to you, but you can listen to them. 

That matters, because when the other person feels listened to, they’re going to feel respected. And when they feel respected, they’re more likely to return the favor (both the respect and the listening). 

Saying “I’m listening,” and ideally, following it up by repeating what they just said back to you, demonstrates that you care to hear what they have to say. It shows a desire to understand, rather than just to be understood. If you want to keep your discussion civil—and especially if you want it to be productive—then demonstrating your ability to listen, rather than just accusing the other person of not listening, is vital.

Say this: “You’re right.”
Not that: “You’re wrong.”

I’ve found that most people have more in common than they think. While we tend to think that people live on either extreme end of the political spectrum, for example, the truth is that most people’s beliefs actually fall closer to the center of the spectrum. That means that there’s greater potential for overlap. 

Why does that matter? Because genuine agreement is a fantastic tool during an argument. Being able to authentically say, “You’re right” or “I agree with you” can go a long way toward establishing common ground and therefore being able to have a productive or meaningful conversation. 

Now, the key words here are “genuine” and “authentically.” You don’t want to pretend to agree with someone just so they think you’re on the same page. The trick is to actually find the common ground that is almost certainly there. 

Along with that, whether or not you can authentically say “You’re right,” you should still avoid saying “You’re wrong.” “You’re wrong” is a strong statement that is immediately going to put someone on their guard. Plus, chances are good that what you’re discussing is a matter of opinion rather than fact, which means that it’s impossible to be “right” or “wrong.” Saying “You’re wrong” is just going to alienate the other person and make it that much harder for you to have a good discussion. 

Say this: “Explain it to me again.”
Not that: “I already know that.”

This might be a hard truth to swallow, but here it goes: You don’t know everything. Especially when it comes to someone else’s beliefs and opinions. 

It’s remarkably easy to put someone into stereotypical boxes that we’ve fashioned in our minds:

“You’re a Democrat, so of course you think (x).”
“You’re a Christian, so you oppose (y).”
“I know you voted against that law, so you must feel (z).”

But people are more complex than that. It’s possible for someone to belong to a political party, a group, or a religion, and not agree with everything that group does or believes. It’s possible for them to fit in with some of the stereotypes, but not all of them. Or, it’s possible for their opinions to differ just enough from their chosen groups that they may seem like an outsider in some ways.

We don’t know everything about someone just because we know something about them.

So when someone is trying to explain how they feel, don’t assume you already know. Ask clarifying questions. Ask them to explain it to you again. Repeat back what they say to demonstrate and build comprehension. Give them the chance to show you that they are a nuanced individual, not a mass-manufactured robot. 

Say this: “I know you care about this. I do, too.”
Not that: “You are blind/stupid/brainwashed/ignorant if you really believe that.”

Abusive ad hominem is a logical fallacy describing what happens when a person attacks the person they’re arguing with, rather than the argument itself. Any sort of personal attack—something that attempts to diminish the person’s intelligence, reputation, personality, believability, etc.—falls under this category.

A lot of times, the personal attack has nothing to do with the subject of the argument. A person’s knowledge about educational funding, for example, has nothing to do with the type of TV shows they like to watch, the foods they eat, or the hobbies they have. And yet, this sounds exactly like something you would see in a Facebook argument: “Why should we listen to what you think about educational funding? Your profile pic makes it look like you have no education at all.”

Most people have good reasons for thinking or feeling the way they do. Whether their opinions are based on research, discussions with experts, or experience, people often have some evidence to back up their claims. 

Not only that, but people usually have good intentions. They don’t feel a certain way because they’re heartless, greedy, or mean, but because they believe that their opinion is genuinely “better” in some way. 

Choose to recognize that good intent. Acknowledge that the other person cares about this matter, just like you do. Refuse to sink to the level of using below-the-belt personal attacks to bring the other person down and thus “win” the argument. 

Say this: “Do we need to stop?”
Not that: “I’m done talking about this!”

Sometimes, the best thing to say is nothing at all. This includes stopping an argument before it gets out of hand. If any of the following things are true, it might be time to drop it and move on:

  • One or both of you are getting emotional or worked up
  • You are both repeating the same arguments over and over again
  • One person has had their feelings hurt by the other
  • A third party steps in and tells you it’s time to stop (they can probably see something you can’t)
  • Someone has expressed the desire to stop
  • Arguments are starting to get personal

Preserving relationships and treating people with kindness are more important than winning an argument. If you’re getting to the point where your relationship might be in jeopardy, or where you’re simply starting to be unkind, it’s okay to step back. It’s okay to let it go. If the discussion needs to be stopped, be the one to stop it.

Keeping these phrases in mind will help you avoid some of the biggest mistakes you can make during an argument. If you can adopt these “say this, not that” phrases and keep your conversation civil, you’ll be much more likely to have mutually beneficial conversations that help you expand your horizons and create more love in the world.

“Create Happy,” with Design.org.

Learn to “Create Happy” in every area of your life. Take our assessment and get started with our free coaching program. You’ll receive personalized messages centered around your goals and potential for growth. Start today!