If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve probably had experience talking to a contrarian: Maybe it’s an otherwise lovely friend who’s a little too fond of saying, “Well, actually, you’re wrong about that...” when you share something interesting you’ve learned on a podcast. Perhaps it’s your political junkie co-worker who “has to play devil’s advocate” whenever you share your take on something in the news.
Whatever their deal is, the contrarian’s tendency to view every casual conversation as a chance for intellectual gamesmanship can be incredibly grating after a while.
“For most of us, being countered in an opposing way leads to us getting our hackles up or even shutting down,” said Brittany Bouffard, a psychotherapist in Denver. “But often, the contrarian person might just want to harmlessly engage in conversation or better understand you. It just comes off strong.”
How do you deal with this type of conversationalist ― well-meaning but a little too aggressive for your taste ― at work or in your personal life? Below, therapists and etiquette experts share some of their best advice on how to talk to a contrarian without losing your cool.
Understand the different types of contrarians (Yes, there is more than one. Sorry.)
The first rule of conversing with a contrarian? Learn why they are the way they are.
Amanda Deverich is a marriage and family therapist in Williamsburg, Virginia. In her work with couples and individuals, she’s come across plenty of contrarians and said she’s observed three basic types: the competitor, the gadfly and the left brain.
The competitor contrarian is usually someone who’s close to you in some capacity: It could be your sibling, a co-worker who was hired at the same time as you, or an old high school pal who’s more frenemy than friend at this point in your life.
Some of them may just be naturally competitive in a good, fun-loving way. But Deverich said others might be working out past hurts in their interactions with you or they might actually be invested in one-upping you.
“In either case, your best move is to not take the bait,” she told HuffPost. “Focus on your goals, stay within your boundaries, and work to move things forward. If the relationship is close, someone you really care for or someone you can’t avoid, it is worth trying to address what is underneath the competition.”
Next up is the gadfly. Gadfly contrarians make people think. (Case in point: Socrates called himself the “gadfly of Athens.”)
“They’re like a puzzle you can’t figure out,” Deverich said. “Intriguing.”
At their best, this person will bring up interesting counterpoints, forcing you to go just a little deeper than you otherwise would.
“You might share great intellectual banter, causing you to see things differently or absurdly,” she said. “Some gadflies are existentialists who use contrarian comments to deconstruct your positions completely.”
At their worst, a gadfly contrarian can be manipulative, using their commentary to gaslight their conversational victims.
“The best way to tell if you are dealing with a gadfly contrarian is to pay attention to how you feel when talking to them,” Deverich said. “Are you having fun? Are you intrigued? Are you learning and growing? Or do you leave the conversation feeling hurt, affronted, ashamed, confused or other negative emotions?”
If it’s the latter, it might be time to shoo your gadfly away.
Lastly, there’s the left brain contrarian. This kind of contrarian operates primarily from their logical, left brain. They’re Spock-esque in their observations of life and usually don’t mean to turn a casual conversation into a debate; it’s just in their sometimes-alien-like nature.
“For instance, the partner of one of the couples I work with said, ‘Look at the beautiful blue sky!’ and the other responded, ‘There is a cloud over there,’” Deverich said. “This was a typical interaction.”
The one partner was more emotional, operating out of their right brain. The other, a contrarian, would often note the counter-facts.
What’s important to note here is that the person isn’t trying to be pesky or contrarian for contrarian’s sake. Their delivery of the facts may be dry, but they aren’t in a bad mood; they’re simply observing.
If you’re close to the contrarian, tell them how their conversation habits make you feel.
Kurt Smith is a marriage and family therapist in Roseville, California, who works primarily with men. One of his clients is a husband and father who’s a major contrarian. The man insists on stirring things up on a variety of polarizing issues ― it’s 2021, he has limitless options! ― and he’s especially prone to do it when he’s around his young adult children.
Unsurprisingly, his contrarian “I just love to debate” ways have become a recurring topic in his therapy sessions with Smith.
“The client regularly uses a phrase from the old TV show, ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ saying, “I like to give people ‘the business,’” the therapist said.
The problem is, “the business” isn’t family friendly, Smith said.
“While the man claims he doesn’t want to damage his relationships with his kids or wife, he’s resistant to being empathetic to how the other person might feel,” Smith said. “He’ll justify his behavior by saying he’s making people think and to him, that’s a good thing.”
How do you deal with a set-in-their-ways contrarian like that? In the moment, tell the person how it makes you feel when they try to override your opinion or feelings on an issue.
“Say to them, ‘When you say that it makes me feel ______,’” Smith said. “Ask them to respect how you feel by not taking such a confrontational approach when talking to you. And if there are certain topics that are especially difficult, such as politics, then call them out in particular and ask that they avoid them when talking with you.”
Once you call them out, remind your contrarian when they slip back into the behavior.
Old habits die hard. If you’ve already stated how the behavior makes you feel and your contrarian has acknowledged and sympathized with that and still plays devil’s advocate, call them out on it, said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas.
“If the relationship is important enough to salvage, such as family and close friends, the next time the behavior comes up you can gently remind the person that they are ‘doing it again,’” she said. “Let them know you are not attacking them or encouraging an uncomfortable altercation but simply making a point and would appreciate their reciprocal consideration.”
Be mindful of any power differentials that may be involved, especially in workplace hierarchies or if you’re part of a marginalized group.
If you hold marginalized identities and someone is playing “devil’s advocate” with issues that are critical or personal to you (“Black lives matter? Sure, but why not all lives matter?”), it’s important to consider how much energy you have to engage, Bouffard said.
“You can absolutely choose to maintain your inner peace by saying you prefer to not discuss this,” she said.
If it’s a work relationship that will likely remain surface level anyway, Bouffard recommends making a boundary like, “Let’s not get into a debate every time. I said what I think, what do you want to add?”
Don’t underestimate the power of saying, ‘You know, I’d rather not debate right now.’
It’s totally fine to be explicit in what you expect from a healthy conversation, too, especially if you suspect the person is intentionally pressing your buttons.
If you don’t feel like “citing evidence” every time you talk to your spouse ― as one woman writing into a recent Dear Prudence column on Slate said her husband had the gall to ask her to do ― put your foot down and tell them.
“Not engaging by changing the subject, directly stating you don’t wish to play the devil’s advocate game, or stating how you prefer the conversation to go ― these are all viable strategies there,” Bouffard said.
It may be that the person is simply trying to understand you or the topic at hand better ― but tone and approach matter.
“Their intentions may be good, but they just come from a debating style,” Bouffard said. “Let them know that’s definitely not your preference.”
We’ve all been there: Somehow, you’ve found yourself in a conversation with a person you have nothing in common with, someone who intimidates you or someone who won’t stop complaining. These kinds of interactions can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Our HuffPost series How to Talk to Just About Anyone will help you navigate these conversations and others. Go here for all the latest.