• A woman shows her support for same sex marriage on September 23, 2017 in Sydney at the Party for Freedom's 'Straight Lives Matter' rally. (Getty Images)
A psychologist's guide on how you can remain cool under pressure when confronted with someone who shares a different opinion.
By
Nicola Heath

3 Oct 2017 - 3:22 PM  UPDATED 4 Oct 2017 - 12:13 PM

‘Respectful debate’ is a phrase we’ve heard mentioned a lot during marriage equality discussions in 2017, but what exactly is it?

It’s easy to say what it isn’t: it isn’t name-calling, dog-whistling and scare mongering.

Clare Mann – a psychologist, communications expert and managing director of Communicate31 – says the first part of a respectful debate is to be open to what people say.

Whether you’re debating the merits of marriage equality, it’s important to allow your sparring partner “the time and respect to explain what they mean, so that their intention, as well as what comes out of their mouth, is understood,” Mann says.

You must go into a debate prepared to learn something new, says Mann, “which is often what people don't do.”

She also recommends that you ask intelligent questions to try to examine the different perspectives at play, rather than jumping to conclusions and coming back with your response.

Respectful debate is often uncomfortable because it challenges our assumptions. You must go into a debate prepared to learn something new, says Mann, “which is often what people don't do.”

Many ardent campaigners fall at this last hurdle when debates descend into slinging matches. “They become entrenched in their views and all they look to do is score a win in that conversation.”

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Rapport is also essential to respectful debate, says Mann. It helps keep things civil. “[Establishing it requires] showing a genuine interest in the other person and an openness to listen.”

When you have good rapport with someone you feel confident they will give you the benefit of the doubt and be open to what you’re saying, says Mann. “It’s provides a wonderful sense of ease and openness [that forges trust]. If we don't have trust, we can't have the difficult conversations. Where there are huge differences of opinion, there's a lot of emotions around.”

Choose your battles

Some people’s views are so entrenched they see the world in black and white and may not entertain new points of view (no matter what you do).

In these cases, Mann says you should be satisfied if you can walk away from a conversation feeling that you’ve maintained your integrity and stayed you true to your values – even if you haven’t changed your interlocutor’s mind.

It’s not uncommon to become angry when you go toe-to-toe with someone whose views clash with your own, but anger often shuts down respectful debate.

Call someone a bigot and they become defensive. “Then it becomes a fighting match,” says Mann.

Neuroscience explains why. “When our blood is at the front of the brain, in the frontal cortex, we can… be open to different points of view,” says Mann. This high-functioning state is sometimes called the ‘blue zone’.

But when we get angry, blood flows to the flight or fight area of the brain, activating the sympathetic nervous system. Also known as the ‘red zone’, it’s a state of low emotional and cognitive awareness.

This is why engaging in inflammatory behaviour like name-calling is rarely helpful. Call someone a bigot and they become defensive. “Then it becomes a fighting match,” says Mann. No progress is made as opinions are traded back and forth like table tennis.

Instead, asking questions will compel the other person to articulate their argument, which may expose its holes.

“There's something very powerful when words come out of the person's mouth, because they actually have to own this,” says Mann. “People hear their own voice and, sometimes, the inconsistency of their argument and they can adjust that.”

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Tips to stay cool in a heated conversation

If, mid-debate, you start to feel the red haze descend, take a step back. Mann suggests visualising blood flowing from the back of the brain to the front. Slow your breathing to help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ pathway.

If you feel the argument is going nowhere, Mann recommends acknowledging it. “Put your hands up and say, ‘Hey look, I think we're losing it a bit here. Neither of us are going to be listening to each other. Why don't we just take five minutes out?’”

“The vast majority of people don't want to go around trashing people… but they often don't think there are other choices.”

Most people are decent but may have been raised to be close-minded, observes Mann. “The vast majority of people don't want to go around trashing people… but they often don't think there are other choices.”

Weigh up the pros and cons before becoming entangled in a dispute with someone who is insular in outlook.

“Ask yourself the question, ‘Does it serve me to push my view on them? Or is there a way in which I can invite them to open their minds? Or am I going to add to their very black and white positions?’”

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