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Keeping the Peace: How to Discuss Tough Topics

Tough Conversations Advice

With the Thanksgiving holiday this week and the potential for gathering around tables with those who might not share the same political, religious, or cultural points of view, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic of talking with those who share different views. Conquering controversial topics — particularly with family — is not for the faint of heart, but I truly believe there's a way to stay positive, voice your opinion, and still keep the peace. 

Of course, if you’re dealing with someone who is violent, judgmental, or narrow-minded, you’re going to have a hard time discussing tough topics with them. However, if you can find people who are open-minded and willing to listen and talk about contentious issues, it’s possible to share your beliefs in positive ways. 

So, how do you go about sharing your opinions without putting other people off? Here are some of the best ideas I’ve found (after doing lots of research and trying them out for myself!) for talking about your beliefs with those who don’t share them.

 

KNOW WHAT YOU BELIEVE.

It might sound obvious, but a lot people aren’t truly certain about what they believe. Many people flip-flop on certain issues, have beliefs based on one-off op-ed pieces (rather than facts), or base beliefs on those held by those surrounding them. Before getting into any serious discussion (especially with people with opposing views), do your research  both the fact checking and the soul-searching kind. Carefully consider the issue, taking stock of what you know and what you might not know.

Just as importantly, consider how you feel really about it. It's incredibly tempting to jump onto the bandwagons, to join groups, and to identify with the labels, but remember: you are complex human being with unique experiences, insights, and ideas. We all want to belong, but think carefully about what beliefs you align yourself with. Before declaring, “I’m a _________________,” or “I believe in _________________,” ask yourself if that’s 100% true. It may very well be true, but it’s important to check in with yourself and make sure that you not your peers, not your family, not a portion of society you aspire to be like  do, in fact, hold these beliefs.

Also, it’s important to keep checking in with yourself periodically to see if you still hold the beliefs. We are ever evolving, changing creatures and what you believe at one point in your life may not be what you believe later. Because sometimes we get lazy, we might cling to beliefs we’ve had for a long time because we think we still believe them, not because we actually do.

 

SCRUTINIZE YOUR SOURCES.

It is so very, very important to check your sources, and then check them again. So many people hold — and speak about  beliefs not based on facts. With the incredible rise of the Internet, you’re able to read this article and countless other things that literally anyone can post online. Sometimes this is amazing — different viewpoints!  unique perspectives! — and sometimes this is just insane — fake news sites created just to get clicks, opinion pieces skewed with untrue claims, etc.

Not only is important to make sure the facts you have are, indeed, facts, but it’s important to be aware of how greatly biased the Internet is. The Internet helps us take sides. We’re encouraged — by the sheer nature of how the Internet is set up — to cultivate either/or mindsets.

Every day we are given a choice to pick one thing or the other: like or dislike this post, agree or disagree with that article. Social media, while it does allow for comments and more lengthy explorations into "gray" territories, often encourages us to choose one thing over the other, usually in a yes-or-no, black-or-white dichotomy.

And here’s the scariest part: what we choose is constantly reinforced with algorithms designed to personalize our content. We are given more content that aligns with what we like, less that showcases what we don’t like. Most of us don’t actively realize this, so it starts to seem like everyone and everything supports our views.

Unlike in the old days, when everyone saw the same images on TV and then disagreed or agreed with those images, we’re now shown images that support the ideas we’ve told the Internet we like. What we see online is meant to appeal to us — which can definitely be nice sometimes — but this is creating little individual bubbles where we’re all seeing the things we want to see, having our beliefs and preferences reinforced (often without even seeing information from the other side).

Do your best to go out of your way to find new sources, to find unbiased articles, to even reach out to those who hold opposing views and ask them for their thoughts.

 

CHANNEL YOUR COURAGE.

Speaking up about the things you believe in with someone who doesn’t share your perspective can be scary, which is why you're going to need to channel your courage. Anyone who has ever had to have a difficult conversation — a break-up, a resignation, etc. — knows just how much courage is required for talking about tough topics. 

When facing challenging conversations, remind yourself that fear (and anger...) is just a chemical reaction going on inside of you. For some reason, I've always found it helpful to bring to mind the biological responses of emotion to remind me that feelings of fear are both natural and combatable

Just because you are afraid to do something doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. In fact, it's often a sign that something is important — particularly when talking about conversations, not phobia-style fears. When beginning an important conversation, take a deep breath, remind yourself of the knowledge you possess (you've done your research!), and understand that, even though a conversation might be difficult, you are doing the right thing by making an effort to communicate openly and honestly with those you know. 

 

BE CLEAR AND HONEST.

When it comes to talking about difficult topics or beliefs, we don't always begin the conversation by being clear and honest. Too often, we are driven by strong emotions and triggered by the words of someone else rather that striving to be levelheaded and thoughtful in what we say. I know this is much easier said than done, but imagine what it would be like if you opened up a conversation like this:

“Hey, I know we have totally different views on this issue, but I’d really like to talk about it. I’m going to do my best to share my point of view calmly, and to listen and keep an open mind to what you have to say. I know neither of us will probably change our minds on this issue, but I think it’s important for us to should talk about it.”

When starting a conversation with someone of a different political background or belief, it can be helpful to make it clear that you’re not necessarily trying to change their mind. One of the reasons we have such heated debates about politics is because it often feels like the opposing side is saying, “You’re wrong. Here’s why.”

Or, if you are trying to change someone’s mind, what if you were honest about it? You could say something like, “You know I feel really passionately about this topic. It’s very important to me, and I’d really love it if I could change your mind about it so that you could see it the way I do. I know that might not be possible, but would you be willing to listen to what I have to say? After I share my thoughts, I’ll be more than happy to listen to your point of view, too.”

The key takeaway from this point is this: you’re never going to transform someone else’s mindset through trickery, bullying, or manipulation. (Okay, you might be able to, but is that the kind “win” you want?) You’ll get a lot farther — and probably have a more positive conversation — if you’re honest and clear about what you want to talk about and what your end goal for the conversation is.

 

SPEAK WITH COMPASSION.

Compassion is a word we hear often, but its actual definition isn’t always clear. Compassion is about recognizing another's pain and desiring to alleviate it in some way (regardless of whether or not you agree with that person's beliefs).

When you’re passionate about a topic, it can be hard to channel compassion in the way you speak and react, but it’s important to do so  not only for the other person’s benefit, but for your own mental state as well.

In the midst of talking about the tough stuff, we need compassion  especially for those who display aggressive, angry, and hateful behavior. Without compassion, we’ll never be able to find our way in this shadowy, complex jungle of difficult discourse. Compassion is our flashlight in the dark. It, alone, is not going to get us from point A to point B, but it sure as hell is going to make the path easier to see.

As I wrote in my article on compassion, defending what you believe and having compassion for those who think differently are not mutually exclusive. You can be passionate and compassionate. Remember this when you’re speaking with someone who has completely different views and you’re struggling with compassion. (Also, try your best to go into the conversation with a compassionate mindset!)

 

LISTEN – REALLY LISTEN.

Listening isn’t just about opening your ears to the sounds coming from someone else’s mouth. It’s also about paying attention to body language, tone, facial expression. It’s also about looking past the words and considering what someone might actually mean, instead of just focusing on what they’re saying. Often, below the surface, it's clear that "I'm aligned with [insert political party here]" really means "[a specific value] is really important to me and [political party of choice] really seems to represent that."

Will it be challenging to listen to other people talk passionately about their beliefs that differ completely from your own? You bet. But, if you want people to be tolerant and accepting of your views, you have to show others the same courteousness. If you want people to listen to you, you must listen to them. And when I say really listen, I mean it. It’s tempting to assume you know what someone is going to say or to take a stand on it before words have even been uttered, but don't allow yourself to make assumptions. Listen with your ears, watch with your eyes, and pay attention with your mind. 

Also, even if others' beliefs might sound crazy to you, don’t punish them for their honesty. Never forget that listening isn’t just about opening your ears — it’s about opening your mind as well. The point of talking about difficult issues with someone of differing beliefs is to open the lines of communication. 

 

RESPECT ALL BOUNDARIES.

Not everyone is going to want to have difficult discussions with you, and that’s okay. It may be frustrating not to be able to talk to people about what you want to talk about, but it’s important to respect others’ boundaries. If someone makes it clear that they don't want to talk to you about an issue, respect that. (Also, consider finding some people who do want to talk to you.)

Here are some other times you might want to respect boundaries — your own and those of the people around you — and not bring up, or keep talking about, tough topics:

 

  • When the other person is emotionally unready or unwilling to hear what you have to say. This isn’t to say you can’t talk about it at some point, but assess the emotional state of others and determine if it might be better to choose a different time to talk. Also, on a less dramatic scale, consider the general emotional state of yourself and the other person. If you (or they) had a terrible, long day at work, maybe it’s not the best time to get into a heated debate.

 

  • When violent acts might be committed against you. This is not a reason for a whole group to be quiet (if it were, we’d still have horrific institutions like slavery), but in one-on-one situations where you would be in great physical or emotional danger if you were to speak your mind about a certain topic, it’s best to remain quiet until you can find a way to communicate without harm coming to you or someone else. Please be safe when it comes to speaking up.

 

  • When you’ve honestly, openly stated your beliefs with kindness and compassion, and you’re receiving only hatred, judgment, and accusations in return. Some people are just not open to listening and talking. This is unfortunate, and it can be painful if it's someone you love, but it’s just the way it goes. Once you’ve said what you wanted to say, repeating it over and over (however nicely!) will no longer be productive.

 

  • When a large group of people is ganging up on you. Again, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t speak your mind, but sometimes it’s better to speak up when you either (a) have at least one person on your side or (b) can have a one-on-one with individuals of the group, instead of speaking to the group as a whole.

 

Regardless of what you’re talking about — or who you’re speaking to  it’s important not only to respect others’ boundaries, but to take care of your own boundaries as well. If you’re unsure about whether or not to keep talking, ask, “Would you like to keep talking about this topic?” If you’ve gotten to a point where your own boundaries are being threatened, say, “I’m glad we were able to start this conversation, but I feel it is no longer productive, and I think we should stop talking about it for now.” 

 

REINFORCE IT WITH ACTION.

Actions speak louder than words, they say, and it really is true. You can talk yourself blue in the face about what you believe in, but if you don’t support those words with actions, it’s going to be much less likely that people will take you, and your beliefs, seriously. Here a few ideas for how you can take positive action on your beliefs:

 

  • Donate to a cause that supports what you believe in
  • Volunteer for an organization you support
  • Share (legitimate, fact-based) information on social media
  • Offer to organize an event or fundraiser for a cause
  • Watch a film about the topic with someone who opposes it
  • Research the issue and consider new ways to offer help
  • Give (well-researched) books on issues you support to skeptics
  • Vote for the people who support what you believe
  • Call Senators / people in Congress and ask for change
  • Ask experts on the issues for ideas for how to help
  • Join local (or online) groups who share your beliefs
  • Read up on what others are saying (and gather facts!)
  • Shop at stores that uphold your beliefs (don't know? ask!)

 

It may seem like this action-taking isn’t a necessary step to talking about what you believe in, but it’s actually essential. Anyone can say they believe in anything, but to really have those beliefs heard (and have them matter), action is necessary. You might also want to see if you can have someone with opposing views take part in the action in some way. Sometimes people don’t realize what they believe until they see a situation for themselves.

 

 

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