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Difficult Conversations: When Your Clients' Views on Issues are Opposite Yours

We all need to do a little more listening to those whose beliefs differ from ours rather than dismissing them out of hand.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings all the polarization of our society to the surface. Your clients may be divided into “camps” on various issues, from whether wearing a mask is a prudent response or an infringement of rights to whether the most reliable information comes from scientists, politicians or their favorite news outlets. Regardless of which position they hold, it’s likely their beliefs are firmly planted and unequivocal.

You may have a valued client (or a friend or family member) who holds beliefs that are fundamentally different than yours, yet you wish to retain a close working or personal relationship with them.  How do address the subject when it arises without alienating them?

Remember what people need most is to feel that they’ve been heard. In addition, we all need to do a little more listening to those whose beliefs differ from ours rather than dismissing them out of hand. Increased understanding and honest communication builds our own strengths, develops better relationships with others, and allows the potential for finding common ground that can move us forward.

Here are solid strategies to employ in each of three different situations.

  1. At least in some situations or with some people, it may not be worth it to you to discuss these topics. If that is the case, don’t engage. If they bring it up, simply go on to talking about something else. If they push, tell them you want to maintain your relationship and so you choose not to discuss such controversial areas. You understand they have strongly held beliefs and you defend their right to have them, but it simply takes too much precious time and energy to get into it. You choose to set it aside, at least for now, and you hope they can, too.
  2. If you wish to engage the topic with an aim of building on your relationship, then the first requirement is to let go of the need to persuade. Most likely, you won’t convince them anyway, and if you try, the conversation will end in frustration or anger. Therefore, keep foremost in your mind that the goal is to understand, not to contradict.

    Then try this sample verbiage: “I value my relationship with you, and I’d like to hear more about your views. That’s what’s important to me—not to convince you I’m right or vice versa but to understand your perspective and where you’re coming from. So tell me more. What do you believe about this situation and why?”

    Listen well, with compassionate curiosity. Ask questions based on what they say. “So what I think you’re saying is ... Is that right, or how would you correct it?” Listen and clarify until you could explain their position back to them as accurately as they would explain it themselves.

    Finally, thank them for being honest and forthright with you. If they ask whether they have convinced you, you can say something like, “Well, you’ve given me things to think about. We may have to agree to disagree on several points. But the most important thing is that I understand so much more clearly now what you believe and why, and that’s the goal. Thank you for sharing your story and your beliefs with me. I really appreciate it.”
  3. If you wish a more mutual discussion, then first follow the strategy in No. 2. Then you can ask whether they are interested in hearing your perspective, which is different from theirs. They may refuse, and if so there is nothing you can do. You cannot control another person; you can only control yourself.

    If they are willing to listen, then politely and calmly list a couple of points of disagreement, gauging their reaction as you do. If they seem open and willing to discuss, you can go on. However, if they are clearly getting upset by your views, then say, “I can see that you strongly disagree with what I’m saying. I’m still happy that you shared your beliefs with me, and we can set this discussion aside. Maybe we’ll come back to it another time, but I believe this is a good time to stop, at least for now. Is that OK with you, or what else would you like to say?”

    If they argue back with you, then listen again and ask questions, letting them know they are heard, and end by once more thanking them for giving you something to think about and sharing their story.

As the pandemic and societal controversies show little signs of going away and a contentuous election season gets into full gear, these skills are important to maintain positive relationships with valued clients and friends.

Amy Florian is the CEO of Corgenius, combining neuroscience and psychology to train financial professions in how to build strong relationships with clients through all the losses and transitions of life. 

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