7 tips for talking about hot-button issues

Over the last couple months, I’ve engaged in dozens of conversations about religion, politics, and other sensitive topics. The conversations have been online and offline and with people with whom I agree and disagree, in some cases vehemently. After some reflection, I wanted to point out a few things that I’ve learned can be helpful when approaching these kinds of issues. I’m still working on these, and my critics will be quick to tell you that I’ve still got a long way to go. They’re absolutely right. But you have to start somewhere.

Many will probably disagree with my fundamental premise, which is that dialogue is valuable and is the only true path to understanding.

1. Initiate dialogue with those you disagree with
Far too many of us avoid talking about the deepest and most meaningful issues of life, often because we dislike conflict, we fear not knowing the right answers, or perhaps we’re afraid of offending someone. Whatever the reason, the result is that many of us live in ideological bubbles where ideas are seldom challenged and beliefs are rarely scrutinized. There are many people who harbor deep feelings of resentment and dislike, even hatred, towards people who hold opposing viewpoints on religion or politics, but they have never actually had an open and honest conversation with those people.

2. Seek to understand the other side
If you approach these conversations with the goal of changing the other person’s mind, you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed. Now, I know that it’s unrealistic to go into a tough conversation on a controversial issue when you have a dearly held position and truly have an open mind. But do your best. Try and set aside the preconceived notions you have and really listen to what the other person is saying. It might not be as ridiculous as you thought. Even if you still disagree after hearing them out, you may find that you respect them and their beliefs more than you did.

3. Find common ground
When going into tough discussions with people we disagree with, we tend to focus more on what we differ on than what we have in common. This is a mistake, as it sets people as enemies when they may agree on many of the most important points of their positions. A good example of this is the incredible fracturing that occurs in most major religious traditions over the most trivial minutia, despite the fact that they agree on almost all the key tenets of the faith.

4. Keep your emotions in check
Emotion and passion are useful, but only when they are tightly controlled. It’s natural for you to feel something when faced with things you disagree with strongly, but if you let your emotions fuel your reaction, the entire discussion will be useless, and is likely to make things worse. Be calm and rational as best you can, and if you can’t, put the conversation aside until you can. This is one reason that discussing things online or via email is often more useful; each side can take the time to think things through carefully and let their emotions settle down.

5. Stay away from personal attacks
One of my favorite moments in all the debates leading up to the presidential election was when Joe Biden talked about how it’s ok to question people’s judgement, but don’t question their motives. I think this is great advice in general. The truth about liberals and conservatives is that they both love America and want to see Americans succeed and do well; they just differ somewhat about the best way to accomplish that. When you accuse someone of being unpatriotic because of a political belief, or otherwise impugn their character, you only do damage to your own credibility and character. Stick to the issues.

6. Admit when you’re wrong
You don’t think you’ve always got it figured out, right? You will be wrong. When you are, admit it, learn from your mistake, and move on. And take heart…finding out that you’re wrong is a great thing, because you’ve eliminated another incorrect belief from your worldview. Progress 🙂

7. Don’t get discouraged
The truth is that even if you follow the above (and any other great advice), you probably won’t see a lot of change in other people’s positions or in your own. People tend to hold many of these beliefs as a part of their overall identity, and getting them (or yourself) to think about them differently is challenging because they feel like they’re losing control over who they are at the core. But do not give up. I am living proof that rational discussion can change at least some minds. It may take years, but it can happen. And you might find that you change your mind on a few things, too.

I’d love to know if you think these tips make these kinds of discussions worth having, or if you have any others to share. Post them below…