Don’t avoid the conversation

Photo Courtesy | Serc-Carleton
Real friends discuss real issues.

How to discuss difficult topics with family and friends

The world around us might seem quite polarized right now. Even if there weren’t the current political climate of human rights campaigns and partisan lines splitting along mask opinions, there have always been issues on the table that was worthy of an argument or two. However, after months of lifestyle changes spurred on by a pandemic, it seems that the intensity of those arguments has been ratcheted up.

So, how do we go ahead and have hard conversations that are necessary when emotions are high and patience is low? How do you ask your aunt who thinks coronavirus is a hoax to wear her mask? How do you discuss your cousin’s choice to vote for Trump? How do you talk to someone you love about something that you two disagree about?

Many people choose not to have these conversations. I see sentiments often along the lines of, “Someone’s [politics, religious views, opinions, etc.] shouldn’t come in the way of our relationship.” While I understand this likely comes from a place of understanding, what conversations you choose to have (and not to have) are a reflection not just on what you think of someone else’s character but on your own character as well.

If you’re looking to understand the moral worth of an individual around you, look first to their opinions, what they think about a political or human rights issue, and you will quickly learn what they stand for. Feelings on these topics are central to an individual’s character, so it is simply impossible for these things not to affect your relationship with a person; unless you don’t care about the values of those you surround yourself with.

Over the summer, many of us were having conversations with family and strangers alike about topics like race, politics and the pandemic. For me, most of these conversations were incredibly enriching. I got to fully appreciate where those who might disagree with me were coming from and I often left these conversations feeling far more connected to the person than beforehand. 

Having conversations on difficult topics is not only necessary for the sake of your relationship with any person, but it is a reflection of your own integrity. So, let’s look at how to have these conversations in a productive manner. 

Start from a place of love

It sounds cheesy (because it is), but really, don’t go into the conversation with only what you disagree about under your belt. This person you’re going to talk to: what do you admire about them? What are the reasons you appreciate having them in your life? What good qualities do they have? 

Not only will recognizing all the good things about this person help you to enter into a conversation with more empathy, but it will also allow you to see ways in which their opinions and their hearts don’t align. If you love a person because they are incredibly kind, but they support a policy that would keep immigrant children out of the hands of their parents, you might be able to see how their stance on this topic doesn’t match up with their morals. 

On the other hand, if you’re searching and searching for good things about this person and you’re coming up empty, is it even really worth pursuing your relationship, let alone a conversation with them? This isn’t to say we shouldn’t talk to people with alternate viewpoints as our own, but when it comes to addressing topics with close family or friends and you can’t even think of a worthy quality in such a person, the conversation likely won’t go anywhere. 

So, before you even begin talking to this person, find reasons why they’re important enough to invest this conversation in. Find where you already agree before even addressing where you might disagree. 

As an example, I decided to have conversations with a few of my friends this summer about how they were feeling with the human rights protests going on around the country. Instead of immediately asking these friends why they were remaining silent or why they might be reluctant to approach the topic, I made a mental list of why these people were important to me.

Instead of immediately talking to them with guns a’ blazing, I had built a strong foundation for why having these conversations was so important to me, and why I thought these awesome people I had in my life might have reasons not to speak up and why having a conversation about those reasons was essential to our continued relationship. 

Where are they coming from?

This leads directly into trying to figure out where these people are coming from. If someone in your life thinks that wearing a mask increases their chances of getting coronavirus, what source are they listening to? What evidence has been provided to them that has made them believe such things?

Often times there are multiple sources further entrenching these people into false or bigoted beliefs. They may watch a news channel that insists on the validity of certain political candidates (it’s hard to guess which one). Perhaps there are people in their lives keeping them from speaking their minds. Or maybe they have just never had to confront their own biases and don’t know where to begin.

While these reasons do not absolve them of the blame for doing something morally wrong, they will help you to understand where they’re coming from. If someone who you really trusted told you they had a cure to the virus, say bleach, even if you are an intelligent person, it’s understandable why you might still believe someone in a position of power, authority or trust to give you genuine information on the quality of said cure. 

Back to this summer, I tried to look at the lives of my friends who weren’t talking about BLM or were shying away from the topic. One of my close friends’ father was a police officer, another had a father that was also a public official. It was likely that my friends felt they couldn’t speak up due to the position of their families. 

Instead of assuming the worst, I went in trying to give people the benefit of the doubt. I know this is easier said than done, as it’s not particularly easy to try to find an excuse for more extreme behaviors that might be evidence of bigotry or ignorance, but assuming the best of the person you’re talking to allows you to talk to them, not down to them. 

Consult People You Trust

It’s understandable to be nervous about having tough discussions, that’s often the reason why people choose to ignore problematic behavior. That’s why it’s so important to consult other people you trust and ask for their advice and guidance. 

Go find the person who you think has the soundest judgment. If you had a problematic opinion, who is the one person you would want to talk to you about it? Got a person in mind? Yeah, that’s who you should consult. 

Before talking to my friends about the BLM protests, I went and talked to my most trusted friend. I asked if bringing up the topic was appropriate, what I planned to say and how I planned to go about the conversation. It was only after talking to this trusted individual that I felt like I had really done everything I needed to do. 

If this all seems extreme and tedious, that’s absolutely fair. However, most people are, at this point, so entrenched in their beliefs and so exhausted from this year that before you even think about approaching someone you need to prepare yourself. 

Share What You Feel

Most of us know the classic confrontation technique of using ‘I statements’, saying things like “I feel that [x] action was hurtful to me,” versus saying “You were hurtful with [x] action.” This is a useful tool as it shifts the discourse from blame to expression of feelings.

In this case, you shouldn’t just use ‘I’ statements practically, but also adapt them as your mentality for the entire conversation. Realize that you shouldn’t just be saying you feel things to make the conversation go more smoothly, but you should recognize that your point of view is completely painted by your own experience as is theirs. 

First, express the reasons why you think a conversation with them is worthwhile. The purpose of this is not to buff up their ego (although it certainly won’t hurt) but to show them that you care about the first and feel concerned for them second.

Then you should provide your point of view and the viewpoint of others around you. I expressed to one of my friends how I knew they were a caring individual and that their silence on important issues seemed to me, out of character. Then, I conveyed that even if they meant to stay out of the conversation, their silence was sending a message antithetical to their view of themselves as an upstanding person.

I assured them that I didn’t think this was an accurate reflection but the one they were giving off nonetheless. I then expressed my desire to fully hear where they were coming from, to talk through whatever platform they might prefer (social distancing first everybody) and that I had given the conversation a lot of thought.

If you do everything in the same manner up to this point, you’ve done everything within your power. You’ve looked for the good in the person, you’ve tried to empathize with why they might believe something, you’ve consulted those you trust to put your best foot forward and then you’ve expressed your feelings in a way that reassures that you don’t think the impression of their actions is their true intent. And yet, you should still…

Be prepared for defensiveness or criticism

You’ve put time and energy into this conversation, they haven’t. These feelings that you’ve really mulled over and prepared yourself for are not ones they have had time to process. Maybe you started from a place of anger and worked your way to having a positive conversation. The other person may also start with anger but they have to process their feelings right in front of you.

Instead of interpreting your feelings as concern, they may instead see them as criticism. This is especially true if you’re talking about your feelings through an online format where your tone might not accurately be reflected.

Allow them time to share their concerned feelings, allow them to feel defensive, allow them to process through things that you’ve had plenty of time to think about. This experience may be incredibly difficult, or even hurtful, but it’s important.

Reiterate your feelings about them and the topic at hand

At this point, if you’ve allowed them to air their grievances and you’ve restated why you think discussing this openly and without judgment is important, one of two things will happen.

The first is that they take into account what you have said and you have a productive conversation. You’re able to further appreciate why your relationship with them is so important and they’re able to see the full implications of their actions. Maybe you will change their mind or maybe you’ll just introduce them to a different way of thinking. Either way, you’ll both be better for the experience.

The second is that they may continue to shut down, refuse to listen or become overly defensive. No amount of your trying to explain your feelings will allow them to hear anything but a critique of their character. This can be enriching for you too, even though it is not ideal.

If you truly care about someone or care about a topic at large, you shouldn’t let those you love get away with beliefs that could harm others, likely others that you also care about. In the future, you now know you’ll be able to handle discussions with this person that go beyond surface-level topics and you may gain a deeper level of connection.

If your conversation goes poorly, and they can’t hear anything besides criticism, they probably aren’t the most emotionally mature person to have in your life. Having rarely been faced with a contradictory opinion from a loved one, they likely don’t challenge themselves or those around them to be better people (or they only provide moral advice but aren’t open to taking it). 

Say this individual can only hear you trying to help and understand as an attack. They likely don’t have an incredibly positive image of you in their heads. In the end, you will leave the conversation knowing you tried your best to reach them and that losing them in the process might eventually be a positive change for you. 

Friends don’t let friends get away with racism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia or any other form of hate. And if you find yourself on the defensive in conversations like these, take them as an opportunity to grow. 

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