UK BREXIT TALKS: I respectfully disagree – How to argue constructively about Brexit

“We don’t see family now,” says one woman in her 50s, who lives in Norfolk. “We didn’t see them that often and now I have no desire to see them ever again.”

The woman, a Remain supporter who is French but married to a Briton, wants to remain anonymous. She tells how she has felt “unable to talk” to some friends and family members, after hearing their views on Brexit.

She hasn’t spoken to some friends – despite having known them for decades. “I know if I speak to them I would go into such an argument. It makes me very, very sad.”

And of family, she says: “I think my husband is trying to keep me away from my in-laws as much as possible so I don’t have a row with them. He hates confrontation.

“I don’t thrive on it, but if I need to make a point I will make a point.”

On the other side of the debate, one 59-year-old Leave voter from north London says most of his discussions with “remainers” are “reasonable”, although there are “complete nutters”, often on social media, who “can’t cope with the fact people voted to leave”.

“I have got the ammunition I need, and they know I know what I’m talking about,” he says.

But he says his girlfriend – who is from Czech Republic and would have voted to remain – was “a bit cross” about his vote.

“She said I voted for her to go back,” he says. “But we are still boyfriend and girlfriend now. We don’t discuss it.”

For more than three years, Brexit has been sparking disagreements among families and friends.

Even Boris Johnson’s family avoid the topic of Brexit, said his sister Rachel last week, as the siblings’ brother, Jo, quit as a minister and Tory MP.

But how should you deal with arguments over Brexit – and when should you give up? Experts explain the art of arguing.

Listen and don’t interrupt

The most common mistakes people make during arguments are the most obvious – not listening and interrupting each other, says the author of book How to Argue, Oxford University law professor Jonathan Herring.

“When you interrupt someone you are essentially saying you don’t want to hear what they are saying and that creates a bad atmosphere.”

A Pro-Brexit protester argues with a woman holding opposing views in Parliament square during a demonstration in central London
Image captionParaphrasing what the other person says and repeating it back can be useful

He adds: “You have to understand where the other person is coming from. Good listeners will try to build consensus. There will be issues on which you agree.

“On Brexit, you might both be concerned about immigration or the economy and if you can both agree on this then it can help to have some common ground.”

It’s important to try to work out what’s important to the other person and then tailor your points accordingly, he adds.

“If someone does not care about the economy, giving a lot of economic statistics will not be helpful.”

No caricatures

When arguing about Brexit, people often go wrong by “assuming caricatures of the person they are talking to”, Mr Herring adds.

“If someone says they support Brexit, someone might assume they must be racist or they are old-fashioned. Someone might assume [Remainers] are very, very liberal or don’t care about immigration.”

Instead, good arguers will listen properly to their opponents’ points, he says.

Claire Fox, who founded the Academy of Ideas to encourage debate and is also a Brexit Party MEP, agrees that labelling people is “really unhelpful”, giving the example of Leave voters who are sometimes portrayed as “being on the side of xenophobia and racism”.

“I understand it can be as irritating if people write off Remainers as ‘remoaners’ or as people who are the ‘metropolitan elite’,” she adds.

Brexit Party MEP Claire Fox
Image captionMEP Claire Fox says the UK is “stuck” in the same arguments over Brexit like a “time loop”

It is important to always show respect and treat your opponent seriously, she says.

“If you feel you’re being condescended to and not taken seriously in the discussion, that can make people feel defensive.

“Regard each other on face value rather than putting people into different camps.”

Changing minds

Gabrielle Rifkind, a specialist in conflict resolution in the Middle East, says you must be “curious and engaged” to find out why the other person thinks differently.

Tone is also important, she says, so avoid being adversarial and critical.

And success is not just measured by winning someone over to your point of view, says Ms Rifkind, who voted for Remain but says she now sees the Brexit issue “through the lens of healing the splits that have so deeply fractured our country”.

“We seldom listen properly as we want to try and get those with different views to think the same as us, to pull them across the barricade, convince them as to the rightness of argument.

“It is very difficult to tolerate a different point of view,” she says. “What people believe is often very deep inside them, it may be linked to their identity, but we fall into a trap and think unless we can get them to think like us, we are not making progress.

“Ultimately in a good conversation we are trying to find the human connection but this does not mean we have to think alike.”

Anti-Brexit protesters with signs and EU flags lit up with fairy lights stand next to pro-Brexit banners outside the Houses of Parliament in London on September 9, 2019 as MPs debate

Mediator Louisa Weinstein agrees it is “unhelpful” when someone wants to change your mind without fully listening.

“What happens is you want to impose your opinion even more,” she says.

Losers’ consent

Meanwhile, it is important to realise that sometimes you lose, says Ms Fox.

She adds that part of modern democratic life in the UK is losers’ consent.

“If you lose an argument it doesn’t mean you change your mind but you have to accept the decision,” she says.

“You would then say: ‘I accept that decision, I’m going to regroup and win more people over to my side to my argument in the future.'”

When to stop

For Mr Herring, even in the polarised Brexit debate, he believes sitting down to talk together will help people to discover where they agree.

But it’s important to know when to stop, he adds – and realise your relationships are more valuable.

“If you know the person you are talking to gets very upset very quickly, it may be best to avoid the subject,” he says.

During arguments, mediator Ms Weinstein suggests summarising what the other person says and repeating it back, before asking them them if that’s what they said.

“For example: ‘What I heard is that you hate me, and never want to speak to me again.’ They will say, ‘No, you’re just really annoying right now.'”

Setting aside time – “small bitesize chunks” – for the discussion is also useful.

“Put boundaries around it. For example, ‘Let’s talk about it for 15 minutes then we can go to the cinema.'”

Holiday rows

Ms Fox says it is “very tempting to retreat into echo chambers at a time like this”.

“It’s a really unpleasant, febrile atmosphere and so many exchanges, particularly on social media, take the form of demonising and it feels too abusive to engage,” she says.

“On the one hand I understand why people are retreating but it’s important people don’t [stop] influencing fellow citizens and put forward their ideas.

“I would never say don’t have an argument,” she adds.


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