Because the Presidential election in the US is right around the corner, people are talking a lot about how to change the minds of others. On social media and in discussions, people wonder about why those with different opinions won't listen to the facts.

The same problem happens often in the workplace. It is common for people at work to differ in their beliefs about what should be done in a particular situation. Coming to a broad-based agreement about a course of action can be difficult.

Part of the problem is that our culture does not like compromise. Research by Richard Nisbett and his colleagues demonstrates that people from the US and Western Europe prefer to resolve dilemmas by choosing one option or the other, while people from East Asia prefer to find compromise solutions to problems.

The desire to resolve conflicts by having one side or the other win an argument leads many people to think of arguments as debates. That is, when we engage with someone we disagree with, we focus on changing their mind. The discussion is not successful unless one party is convinced that the other is right.

A big problem with debates is that if you know that your point of view is going to be attacked and that the other person is out to change your mind, then you tend to get defensive. You seek lots of arguments to bolster your own point of view. You dig in your heels and try not to lose the argument.

Debates do not create a lot of common ground.

An alternative is to find people you disagree with and just have a conversation with them. Find out why they believe what they do. Talk to them about how they arrived at their conclusions. At the same time, express what you believe and why.

Conversations have a different focus than debates. In order for a conversation to succeed, the parties to the conversation have to seek common ground. Only by finding points of agreement can a conversation move forward. As a result, people leave conversations thinking more similarly to each other than they did before the conversation.

The interesting thing about conversation is that people may exit a conversation feeling like they disagree strongly with the person they just talked to. Yet, they actually had to represent the world similarly to that person in order to converse. Thus, their beliefs are somewhat more compatible after the conversation than before.

The beauty of conversations is that they help to develop consensus without creating the defensiveness that a debate engenders. People are not defensive when they are being asked to talk about their beliefs and the reasons for them.

Another great thing about conversations is that people have a tendency to demonize others who believe differently from them. At some point, it just doesn't make sense how a reasonable person could see the facts out there and come to a different conclusion. By talking with other people, though, you can recognize how someone might view the world in a very different way than you do and yet do so in a reasonable way.

It may seem difficult to have conversations with people you disagree with, but it is not impossible. As an example, about a year ago, I made a political social media post that a number of my connections disagreed with. One person offered to debate me on the topic. I proposed instead that we meet for coffee and have a conversation. The resulting conversation led to a recognition of substantial common ground that led to an Op-Ed piece that ran in several newspapers. It was daunting to sit down with someone who sits on the other side of a political fence, but it was also productive and valuable.

In the end, don't convince, converse.

Published on: Oct 26, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.