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Conversing With Highly Opinionated People

by Loren Ekroth, Ph.D.

Unless we agree with them, talking with highly opinionated persons is often difficult. You've all heard the old adage that we should "never discuss politics or religion" because discussions on these topics can lead to contention and personal dislike.

A large part of the problem in talking with opinionators is that so many of them are personally identified with their opinions (or dogmas and ideologies.) When they discover that your opinion is different from theirs, they may personally feel challenged, as if you are questioning their intelligence or character.

Now, some definitions:

An opinion is a belief that may or may not be backed up with evidence, but which cannot be proved with that evidence. It is normally a subjective judgment and may be the result of an emotion or an interpretation of facts.

A dogma is the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology, or any kind of organization: it is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from.

An ideology is a set of ideas that directs one's goals, expectations, and actions. It is a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things. Often it is a comprehensive (but unconsciously acquired) worldview.

Are all opinions, dogmas, or ideologies equally valid? Clearly not. For example, the specialized opinions of trained and experienced experts such as medical doctors, financial planners, and engineers are more valid than those of the person on the street. And so it is with dozens of other trained and certified specialists, and that is why we seek the services of these experts.

Are all opinions equally valid? Isn't being well-informed a requirement for a valid opinion?

Yet I have often experienced non-experts making pronouncements well beyond their competence, often based upon beliefs they acquired uncritically. Isn't being well-informed and thoughtful a requirement for a valid opinion? I think so.

When I was a university faculty member, I knew various colleagues who confidently pronounced their beliefs about matters of which they had no special knowledge. I saw that as an "occupational hazard" of the profession. Similarly, I have known physicians, attorneys, and clergy to pontificate upon subjects about which they were largely ignorant.

The late conservative thinker Irving Kristol wrote about such intellectuals with this barb: "An intellectual may be defined as a man who speaks with general authority about a subject on which he no particular competence." Well, you can certainly find plenty examples of intellectuals speaking with general authority.

But you can find even more examples of average people, poorly informed and not at all open-minded, holding forth with certainty on matters theological or political. Or even medical or philosophical. Of course, they have the right to free speech and can say whatever they want to.

But I don't agree that just because they hold opinions, that those opinions deserve validity. Too often they are simply repeating opinions and beliefs they've ingested uncritically from someone they consider an authority, like a cleric or radio talk-show host.

My recommendation for your conversations with opinionators, dogmatists, and ideologues is this: Be civil, but give them a wide berth.

At most, offer this: "Let's agree that we disagree and leave it at that." You are not required to try to change another person's views.

After all, you can't talk a person out of something they haven't been talked into.

Loren Ekroth 2009, All rights reserved

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact Loren at Loren@conversation-matters.com. Check out a wealth of valuable resources and articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com and subscribe to his weekly free Better Conversations ezine (which also entitles you to two very informative reports).

Some Related Articles:

Learn The Art of Ending a Conversation
How to Handle Coworkers with "Ego" Problems
Managing Politics in the Office


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