Distinguish acknowledgment from agreement

When people are told their opinions are wrong, they’re likely to become defensive or shut down. Learn to acknowledge their perspective without judgment to provide an opportunity to have a supportive conversation.

Why this matters

Acknowledging that someone else’s thoughts and feelings about a situation are valid for them, even when you don’t feel the same way, can allow them to feel heard and therefore better able to listen.

The other person’s anger, frustration or hurt may not be directly related to what they just told you, but it’s likely their emotions are real, even if the facts aren’t correct. If you argue the facts, you may never get to the real issue.

Acknowledge the other person’s emotions without agreeing or disagreeing with their perspective. Once we disagree with their perspective, they may become defensive or shut down. On the other hand, once you agree with their perspective, you may lose the opportunity to help them see another side to the issue.

Explore and reflect

You may worry that acknowledging another person’s perspective means you agree with them. Choose your words carefully to help avoid that.

For example, one friend complains to you about how disrespectful another friend was to them in a discussion about politics. You were there when the conversation became heated. You know that both friends were passionate about the topic. Both raised their voices and became more animated. You don’t feel that one was worse than the other, or that there was any intention of disrespect. If you try to point this out, it’s likely your friend will feel you’re taking sides or dismissing their perspective. Instead, acknowledge how they feel without agreeing or disagreeing, using simple statements like:

  • It sounds like this has been really difficult for you.
  • I can hear how frustrated you are with all of this.
  • I can see how much this has upset you.

In each of these cases, you’re expressing empathy for the other person’s emotions without agreeing to their version of the situation. This allows you to continue discussing the situation and exploring options for them to move forward. The supportive conversation library can help you continue the discussion from here.

Take action

The next time you disagree, practice acknowledging the other person’s emotions without agreeing or disagreeing. Compare the conversation that follows after you acknowledged their emotions to one in which you immediately jumped to disagreeing.