COVID-19 is not the only epidemic our country has been dealing with lately. The other one is the intense division we face as a people. All around us, lifelong friendships and familial ties have been cut because of disagreements about Ukraine, politics, religion, vaccines, masks and more. So how do you sit down to a dinner with friends and family without the conversation devolving into arguments that are so heated they ruin lifelong relationships?

It requires discipline and a change of mindset. Bottom Line Personal asked communications expert Aden Nepom to explain the five pillars for reasoned discourse in a world of outrage.

Get clear on the reason for the conversation. You’re sitting down to a family dinner, and your cousin, whose offensive memes you’ve seen on social media, decides to open the conversation with a tirade about his least favorite politician. You have a few choices…

  • You’re well-informed and smart, so you could attempt to show him the errors of his ways by refuting his point of view.
  • You could remain silent and never talk to him again after today.
  • You could proceed with the conversation to find out what makes him tick.
  • You could say, “I don’t see any point in our discussing this right now.”

If you’re going to spend your time in a conversation, it’s useful to have a reason for engaging in the first place. Arguing for the sake of arguing, trying to change the other person’s mind or fighting the good fight for “your side” usually aren’t good reasons. Strong emotions such as self-righteous indignation release endorphins that make us feel good, but is a hit of brain chemicals sufficient reason to jeopardize a relationship? Too often, the sole purpose of an argument is to remind our own egos about how right we are. Ask yourself if that is what this is about.

You might believe you have a moral duty to spread truth, and you can proudly cite facts and sources. Unfortunately, study after study shows that facts and statistics aren’t effective in changing people’s minds. No matter how well-researched your argument, you almost never will bring someone around by spewing data.

There are some legitimately positive objectives for conversations about controversial topics. Giving someone an opportunity to be heard is a great objective. Feeling good and having fun are great objectives. Building trust between you is a great objective. You can tell you have a good, clear objective when it’s something you can say out loud. If you can’t come up with a reason for the conversation beyond proving you are right and the other person is wrong, err on the side of preserving the relationship. It’s okay to tell the other person, “I want to enjoy my time with you. Because we both have strong points of view, I think if we get into this topic, it will take away from that objective.” Then suggest something else to discuss.

Reminder: Sometimes we’re the ones to inadvertently blurt out opinions that offend our loved ones. If you sense strong resistance to something you’re saying, that’s a sign the trust between you and your listener is eroding, and your notice to pause and reflect upon the wisdom of proceeding.

Make helpful assumptions. We can’t help but make assumptions about one another. But we can be conscious of those assumptions and strive to make them helpful. For a conversation about a touchy subject, here are some unhelpful assumptions—This person is ill-informed…This person is trying to destroy our country…This person has no respect for tradition…This person’s opinions are based in fear.

What would be some helpful assumptions? This person is as up-to-date on the issues as I am…This person just wants what’s best for our country.

Note that an assumption doesn’t have to be true to be helpful—it only must support the objective of the conversation. Giving the benefit of the doubt, assuming good intent and giving the most charitable interpretation of what’s said are the only ways to make sure the discussion doesn’t go off the rails.

One distressing aspect of social media is the proliferation of “if/then” statements. If you voted for a certain candidate, then you’re a socialist…If you’re in favor of mask mandates, then you’re against personal freedom…If you’re not vaccinated, then you don’t care about old people. Such statements make leaps of logic in a rush to obliterate nuance, label the other person and disqualify his opinions based on whatever you’ve just accused him of being or thinking.

Listen to understand. This is probably the most important of these five pillars. If you’re going to discuss a controversial topic, approach the conversation from a place of genuine curiosity. Seek to understand where the other person is coming from. Ask her why she thinks the way she does…where she got her information…how her belief would play out in the real world…and so on.

What you’re not doing here is asking questions just so you can pounce on a weak point and declare victory. Winning is coming to truly understand the other person—nothing more, nothing less. Even when convincing the other person is not the goal of the conversation, asking lots of sincere questions is a way to introduce incremental changes in thinking—your own and that of your interlocutor.

Example: Imagine you’re an executive at a shoe company, and one of your colleagues has suggested spending $50 million to develop a new red shoe. You think it’s an awful idea—you already have five red shoes in the line, and the development budget is strained. Instead of attacking the idea, you begin asking questions—“Why red? Why now? What’s different about this red shoe? How will it fit in with the rest of the line? Why so much money? Where will those dollars come from? What about these other budget priorities?” Your colleague might have sound answers to these questions, and your thinking on the issue might change. Or your colleague might come to see that the idea isn’t so sound. Neither outcome would have been likely if you both had insisted on your clashing points of view.

You get your turn. If you’ve decided on a good objective for the conversation, made helpful assumptions about the other person and demonstrated that you’ve listened by sharing your understanding of his position, then it’s only fair that you get to share your point of view. Usually, the other person will solicit your opinion, but sometimes he won’t, in which case it’s fair to ask for his ear—“Thanks for sharing all that with me. Now that I’ve heard where you’re coming from, I also have a few thoughts. Would you be open to hearing them?” This doesn’t mean it’s time for you to make a point-for-point rebuttal. It just means you’ll share your thoughts on the topic and tell why you believe what you believe. Reminder: The objective of the conversation doesn’t change just because you’re the one doing the talking now—if you weren’t out to persuade before, don’t suddenly shift to missionary mode just because you have the mic.

You may not feel like sharing your perspective, and that’s fine. Or perhaps the discussion has changed your thinking slightly and you are not quite ready to share. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’d love to share my point of view on this once I’ve had a chance to get my thoughts together.” That can be in three minutes…or three months.

End with gratitude. Your conversation partner has just done you a favor. She has answered your sincere questions about a topic that means a lot to you. Since your conversational objective was a worthy one, wrapping up with an expression of gratitude is a great way to make sure the exchange ends in a way that opens the door to future discourse. It can be an explicit thanks, such as, “I really appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts on this”…or it can be a reaffirmation of the value of your relationship, such as, “This has been really interesting, and I just want to say that even though we disagree on this, I’m really happy to have you in my life.”

Another great way to end is by underscoring the values that the two of you have in common—“I know we don’t see eye to eye on this, but I also know we both want what’s best for this country,” or, “We might disagree on this specific thing, but it’s clear that we both want our kids to be happy and healthy.”

When your conversation partner realizes that you’ve made a sincere effort to hear her out without judging or arguing, you’ve given her a rare gift. And instead of letting the thorny topic destroy your rapport, you’ve engaged in an exchange that has made your relationship stronger.

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