Recently, there have been major shifts in conversations about politics, race, voting, pandemic precautions, sports, and identity to name a few. These topics have been intensely polarizing, and often spoken about in conversation-ending absolutes. When the divide is between you and someone you love, you are unlikely to want to cancel the relationship. So how do we talk about controversial issues with our loved ones without jeopardizing the relationship?
1. Look for Models
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. For all the divisive, unilateral messages available, there are also excellent resources showing how to tackle tough topics. Numerous podcasts, including Tell Me More, With Friends Like These, feature conversations between people who disagree on a topic. The discontinued The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore often finished with panel discussions on a range of difficult subjects. And my book, Listen: How to Embrace the Difficult Conversations Life Throws at You, gives some examples of how to tackle tough issues.
2. Rehearse Your Conversation in Advance
It’s hard to listen when you disagree with the speaker. Your inclination is to interrupt with the counter-point or tune out while preparing your response in your head. Active listening is a skill that all of us need to practice. Before tackling a tough conversation with a parent or child, ask your peers what they think, and brainstorm the topic with them. “The more interested you are, the more interesting you will be.” It is a great idea to rehearse how you might respond if the conversation goes sideways. In most conversations, our goal is likely to protect the relationship first.
3. Research Multiple Sources
Your family member isn’t alone in their opinion. They have news, opinion, and other sources that contributed to their position on a given topic. You may not care for the resources they choose, but you do need to do some work to understand their perspective. On any controversial issue, much will be written and said, so try exploring reputable sources that align with both sides of the issue. While you do your due diligence, ask yourself what fundamental values and priorities are guiding the various sides of the issue.
4. Be open to the idea that your perspective is not the only one.
After you’ve done your preparation, you will hopefully have gained some understanding that every controversy has different angles, and there is room to disagree. While today’s atmosphere tends to be absolutist, there are a lot of grey areas where people can have a meeting of the minds, or at least some measure of agreement, even if they can’t give up their position completely. Without compromising your deeply held beliefs, consider how you might be sympathetic to alternate perspectives.
5. Have a virtual research party
Once you feel ready to talk about a topic with your loved one, take the tension out of it with a research party. Instead of exchanging barbs, you can exchange links and challenge one another to find and share support for your perspective. The joint exercise gives a point of connection, and each of you may find that you learn something new and relevant to the topic in the process. You can each research the other side’s perspective or look for neutral sources that you both respect.
Whether it’s a holiday or a Sunday dinner, your family gatherings can bring up divisive topics. Instead of avoiding the issue, or jeopardizing your relationship with a blow-up, prepare yourself for the encounter. Remember, a “win” in this debate is connecting with a vital person in your life in a way that brings you closer instead of causing a rift.
Interested in seeing this in action? Listen to the podcast, “Tell Me More,” which just launched. Tell Me More… is a new weekly podcast that invites people with differing opinions on current political topics to explore, understand, and reflect upon each other’s positions. Join moderator Matt Lehrman for the precise opposite of a debate or argument — an earnest exploration of perspectives and possibilities.