How to Talk to People Who Have Apparently Lost Their Damn Minds
It's a superpower.
A relative I adore has recently gotten lost in conspiracy theories about the Covid vaccine and the presidential election. It broke my heart to know that this chasm had opened up between us. I found it so painful to call him, even though I knew—from all the reporting I’ve done for High Conflict—that it was the right thing to do. Many people who fall under the spell of conspiracy theories and disinformation are vulnerable because they are feeling lonely and alienated. So not calling just adds to their isolation.
And yet, every fiber in my being did not want to pick up the phone, however much a hypocrite it made me.
Finally, I reminded myself of an inescapable truth: This is not the last time any of us are going to be in conflict with people we love over basic facts. We’re living in a polarized age, not a moment.
If we’re not fracturing over the election, masks, or the vaccine—it will be the next election or the next conspiracy theory. (I’m putting my money on Brood X, the cicada swarm coming to 15 states…the same month as International Harry Potter Day, which commemorates the Battle of Hogwarts. Coincidence?!)
No single news source is trusted by a majority of Americans. Profound distrust has corroded all of our institutions. Fixing this will, I think, be the central challenge of our time.
So for now, we need to get much savvier about managing conflict with the people we love—without shunning them. Otherwise, we will become more closed-off and disconnected than we already are, and the cycle will continue.
If you’re experiencing conflict over Covid (whether to vaccinate, wear a mask, travel, open schools, etc.), the first thing to know is that you are extremely normal. Covid conflict has divided families, neighbors and strangers all over the world. In England, 56% of people in a large study said they’d experienced arguments, confrontations or anger with others because of Covid. (Interestingly, younger people were more likely to say they’d had these reactions, even though they are far less likely to die of Covid. A reminder that humans react to many layers of emotions and threats, not just the immediate, rational one.)
If you want to try to remain connected with people you care about who are seeing the world radically differently than you are right now, here are my tips for handling these conversations with some measure of grace (along with the rest of my own imperfect story of trying to lean into Covid conflict with my relative). But let’s just acknowledge that this is hard. If it feels like something you’d rather not do, you’re doing it right!
And it will get easier, if you do it with care. It can actually make you feel better, even as you continue to wildly disagree. This is the good news: humans can connect with people with whom they disagree profoundly. It’s a superpower, if we want to develop it. I have seen it, and I have done it, and I am not a born diplomat (ask my husband). So if I can do it, you can, too.
Yours, in anticipation of the coming swarm,
How do you navigate Covid conflict?
What does Covid conflict look like for you? Is it really about the virus? Tell me in my newest survey, here.
Thank you to everyone who took last month’s survey about the conflicts that keep you up at night!
Here’s what you told us:
The most common type of conflict was political, which two out of three of you were experiencing.
Family conflict was a close second. For a lot of people, these two categories overlapped.
Specific conflicts ran the gamut from sibling feuds to the environment to Brexit to dismantling racism.
Nearly everyone said they wanted to know more about how to navigate these conflicts in real life, not in theory: how to become a better listener, how to have conversations with those who hold different views, and how to understand each other better.
We heard you. That’s why this newsletter offers up specific advice for these conversations (with more tips here). Tell us if this is helpful—and if not, what would be more helpful.
(If you didn’t get a chance to take the first survey, you can still do so here.)
I write about change and people who have undergone transformations (and the researchers who study them) for The Atlantic, Politico, The Washington Post and other outlets. You can find me on Twitter or email me at email@example.com.
If you’re curious to understand conflict better, personal and political, check out my forthcoming book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out here.
And finally, you can find my latest stories about conflict, Covid and human behavior on my website amandaripley.com.