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How to deal with oppositional conversation styles

Updated: Jul 21, 2023


When someone always has to be right, even in the most casual conversations, they may have an oppositional conversation style (OCS). It’s natural to want to defend your position on topics, especially if you’re in a mutual debate or have extensive expertise in a field. But when someone always has to be right, even in matters of opinion, chatting with them can feel like a losing battle. This type of “I’m right, you’re wrong,” conversation feels like an interrogation, and you can quickly lose patience with someone who contradicts everything you say. If this sounds familiar, you may be interacting with someone displaying an oppositional conversation style. Oppositional conversation styles aren’t known to be supported by psychological research, so further research is needed to better understand this conversation style. Understanding oppositional conversation style Oppositional conversation style isn’t a diagnosable condition. It’s a term coined by the author and founder of The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin, to describe a type of communication. A person with an oppositional conversation style is a person who always corrects, disputes, or argues with your input. This type of communication can appear in combative and aggressive arguments, but it can also emerge in friendly conversations as passive contradictions and dismissing comments.

In a 2013 personal blog post, Rubin states, “I noticed this for the first time in a conversation with a guy a few months ago. We were talking about social media, and before long, I realized that whatever I’d say, he’d disagree with me. If I said, ‘X is important,’ he’d say, ‘No, actually, Y is important.’ For two hours. And I could tell that if I’d said, ‘Y is important,’ he would’ve argued for X.” Even the most innocent of comments may be contradicted if someone has an oppositional conversation style. For example, if you were to say “that’s OK, it seems very straightforward,” the response of a person who challenges what you say may be “not really,” or “not if you look at all the details.”

Signs and causes Again an oppositional conversation style isn’t a diagnosable condition or known phenomenon consisting of a set of behaviors and psychological experiences. Therefore, it’s not known to be supported by psychological research. While the names for communication styles vary among sources, most experts agree on at least four primary forms of communication:

  • passive

  • aggressive

  • passive-aggressive

  • assertive

Of these, OCS may fall into one of the aggressive categories due to the disregard it tends to display for the other person’s feelings. David Clark, a trial lawyer from Okemos, Michigan, says OCS is very apparent in the legal system as a means of taking control or forcing a dynamic in conversation. He says common behaviors of an oppositional conversation style may include:

  • providing alternative facts, personal beliefs, and suppositions just for the sake of debating

  • not listening to what the other person has to say

  • showing no interest in the other person’s input

  • interrupting or hijacking the conversation

  • changing topics to cover their misunderstanding of the facts

  • bringing the conversation back to a topic after the other party has moved on from it

In some cases, certain mental health conditions may contribute to an argumentative, irritable conversation, including:

  • depressive disorders

  • anxiety disorders

  • personality disorders

  • oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)

  • intermittent explosive disorder(IED)

You may also be more likely to disregard the opinions and statements of others if you score high on the spectrum for personality traits like narcissism. How to deal with oppositional conversation styles Knowing how to deal with someone who challenges everything you say can help prevent you from coming away from the conversation frustrated and annoyed. Since OCS isn’t a known condition, there isn’t research support that clarifies specific techniques that could help you cope. But consider the suggested tips below from lawyers who typically experience people who dispute or argue against another person’s input.

Affect labeling Douglas Noll, a professional mediator and lawyer from Clovis, California, indicates reflective listening in the form of affect labeling can be a powerful tool when dealing with a person who contradicts everything you say. “Ignore the words and reflect back the emotions of the speaker. This is deeply validating and will generally quiet the oppositional speaker down,” he says.

Resisting the urge to debate Clark recommends skipping out on the temptation to debate with someone who keeps drawing you into what feels like an argument. He cautions, “If you are in the position of dealing with someone who has an OCS, understand that debating with this person in order to make them understand the facts of your point of view would be a fruitless endeavor.”

Asking for clarity Not everyone who uses an oppositional conversation style does so deliberately or with the intent to be hostile. In these situations, Clark recommends asking for clarity — for your sake and theirs. “You may ask them if there’s anything you can do to change their mind. If they say that there’s nothing you can do, do your best to remove yourself from the conversation.”

Knowing when to walk away If you’re feeling frustrated, offended, belittled, or attacked by someone’s oppositional conversation style, it’s OK to excuse yourself and step away. You can do this in a disarming, non-confrontational way, such as by saying, “It doesn’t seem like we’ll see eye-to-eye on this one. I’m going to excuse myself for a moment.”

Alignment Alignment is a process in communication that allows you to mimic the style, word choice, and pronunciation of the person you’re speaking with. If someone frequently says “motorbike” instead of “motorcycle,” for example, by switching your own language to “motorbike,” they may subconsciously identify more with what you’re saying. While alignment may not change oppositional conversation style, it may make it so more of your points get through to the other person without them feeling the need to be contradictory.

A different way to communicate Ultimately, any conversational style that’s respectful of other parties will likely be more effective than oppositional conversation style. Noll recommends adopting a form of reflective listening, which he says can include:

  • mirroring

  • paraphrasing

  • core messaging

  • affect labeling

Reflective listening is a form of conversation style and strategy that communicates to another person you’ve heard them and taken what they’ve said into account. It can help provide feelings of validation and mutual respect — even when you’re in a moment of disagreement. Let’s recap Oppositional conversation style isn’t a diagnosable type of dominating conversation disorder. It’s a phrase used to describe when someone directs a conversation by disputing everything you have to say, no matter how small. OSC can feel like conversational narcissism, and while it may be related to mental health disorders or personality traits, it can also be the result of learned behaviors, cultural influences, and attachment styles.

If you recognize an oppositional conversation style in yourself or someone close to you, seeking guidance from a professional mediator or therapist may help open up more effective communication.




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