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Blog Short #96: When should you cut your losses and step out of a conversation?

Photo by fizkes, Courtesy of iStock Photos

How many times have you been involved in a conversation and quietly said to yourself, “Get out now!”

We live in an age where adversarial communication and black and white thinking reign. Worse, we have social media to encourage and keep that trend on display for our continuous consumption.

You have to decide daily what conversations to engage in and how to do it. This is particularly true when it comes to those involving your relationships and the people in your life with whom you have regular contact, whether at home or work.

What it gets down to when considering whether to opt out of a conversation is the level of receptivity both you and the other person involved have to talk about the subject at hand. And this is where you can have a lot of impact, both negatively and positively.

Today, I’m talking about how you can increase your receptivity in a contentious conversation and simultaneously increase the other person’s receptivity. It’s an essential skill not only because it improves relationships in general but goes a long way in resolving conflicts.

Let’s dive in.

What is “conversational receptiveness”?

“Conversational receptiveness” is a term coined by researchers who studied receptivity during discussions where the two parties had opposing views. The researchers used probably the most contentious subject for study – politics! Brave souls, aren’t they?

The results were that using several specific strategies at the outset of the conversation increased receptivity on both sides.

These findings are interesting to me because the techniques that worked best have been used for decades in psychotherapy. It’s good to have them validated.

The researchers identified four strategies that, when used properly, increase receptivity.

If the listener used these strategies, the speaker – even if dogmatically attached to their point of view – loosened up some and became more receptive to an opposing point of view.

This means that, at the very least, two people can disagree and still maintain good feelings and positive regard for each other.

That’s pretty huge, don’t you think?

It certainly is when you think of arguments with the people you love and care about and the emotional toll serious disputes can take on your relationships.

Let’s go through the four strategies.

1. Acknowledge understanding.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Listen to understand, not to respond.” The idea here is to put everything else aside and focus on understanding what the speaker is saying and feeling. I would go one further and say you want to know what is meant and intended. What does the speaker want you to know, and why is it important to him?

You do this by making statements like “I see what you mean when you say . . .” or “I think what you’re saying is . . .” or “I get it – you’re saying . . .”. These kinds of statements are highly receptive, yet don’t hold you to agreeing to anything you’re hearing.

That’s a key concept to remember when conversing.

Listening and understanding do not imply agreement. They indicate interest and validate that someone has the right to their ideas, beliefs, and values.

Now there are circumstances where you won’t want to do this, which we’ll get to later. For now, keep in mind that receptivity through understanding will create a connection meaning you and the speaker are on the same side rather than adversaries, even if you hold different views about something. That’s a big deal!

2. Find areas of agreement.

To boost the connection, find any areas of agreement you can verbalize. If you’re having an intense conversation with your partner and he says, “I’m tired of fighting over this issue,” you could say, “I totally agree with you. We need to find a solution we can both feel good about.”

Or here’s something broader. Maybe you’re talking to a friend about Covid vaccinations, and one of you is opposed, and one of you can’t believe anyone wouldn’t get a vaccination.

What you can agree on is that we all want this pandemic to end and go back to our regular lives. You could say,

“I think we both can agree that we’re tired of this pandemic and want it gone. We just have different views about how that might happen.”

Statements that find common ground reduce the friction in a conversation and create more acceptance of differences. And sometimes, they make room for more receptivity to considering the other person’s point of view.

3. Make positive statements.

Pick and choose your words when responding. Use words like “Yes!” or “Right!” Do this especially when you hear something you can agree on, or when showing that you understand what the other person is saying. Stay away from words like “shouldn’t” or “wrong” or characterizations of the speaker or their ideas as something negative.

When you hear something that seems outlandish, it’s easy to give a knee-jerk response like, “That’s totally nuts!” Obviously, those kinds of statements or word usage will get you in trouble and close down any hope of receptivity on the other person’s part. So watch your word choice.

4. Hedge to soften your claims.

Instead of saying, “I absolutely disagree with you!” you could say, “Another approach might be . . .” or “A different way of looking at this is . . .”

You might not like this one because it doesn’t sound confident and also feels wishy-washy. However, this approach has been tested in studies and positively impacts even the most contentious conversations. It shows humility, which creates an air of openness and space in the conversation. So maybe it’s worth trying, yes?

When you dogmatically state your views, you’re drawing a line in the sand, and the only response to that is to defend and become riled.

When should you cut your losses and opt out?

Several situations might fit into this category.

Conversations you don’t need to pursue.

These conversations are optional, like political disputes on social media. They’re often nothing more than an opportunity for people to spew their stored-up anger and to say the most negative, heinous things they can think of to vent it. There’s no point in engaging in these conversations. They don’t fit the definition of actual interchange and may as well be monologues.

That isn’t to say that you can’t have a receptive interchange on social media, but pick and choose.

The subject matter offends your sense of morality.

Suppose someone wants to convince you that child pornography should be legal or that we should reinstitute the guillotine or public hangings. In that case, you may feel so morally offended that you have no interest in pursuing a conversation.

Receptivity is a valuable strategy to close the gap between different points of view. However, we have a limit as to what crosses the line. You know your limits and have every right to them.

The Conclusion

The conclusion today is that learning to be more receptive, especially when there are strong disagreements, can do four things:

  1. Bridge gaps in understanding
  2. Aid in finding solutions to challenging problems
  3. Maintain civility and respect
  4. Protect our dearest relationships

And remember, you don’t have to agree or change your view if the evidence presented by someone seems faulty. Still, you can show interest and respect for someone who thinks differently and foster better relationships simultaneously.

The bottom line is that receptivity on one side increases receptivity on the other. So be a receptive listener to have better conversations and help resolve conflicts.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,



Beasley, B. Get better at disagreement with this four-step “receptiveness recipe.” Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership.

Iftikhar. S. W. (2020, December 6). Conversational receptiveness.

Minson, J. A, Chen, F. S., & Tinsley, C. H. (2018) Why Won’t You Listen to Me: Measuring Receptiveness to Opposing Views. Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP 18-028. Available at

PON Staff (2021, February 28). Ask a negotiation expert: How conversational receptiveness might bridge our divide. Program on Negational at Harvard Law School.

Yeomans, M., Minson, J., Collins, H., Chen, F., & Gino, F. (September 2020). Conversational receptiveness: Improving engagement with opposing views. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 160, 131-148.

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