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How to discuss social and political Issues, according to experts


Use these pro psychological skills to get closer to mutual understanding with less conflict.

women talking

Life feels especially fraught these days, with a seemingly endless series of major events happening on a regular basis. There's a lot going on and it can be a lot to process. We're most likely going to want to talk about it with the people in our lives.

If you're lucky enough to be surrounded by like-minded people with whom you can dialogue in harmony about even the thorniest topics, ignore the advice that follows and enjoy your serenity.

But, if you're like most of us, you probably know someone who has a different point of view about [insert stressful topic here], and there's a good chance it's going to come up in conversation. You could react by shutting down and/or exploding, or you could try to have a reasoned discussion with those who may not see eye-to-eye with you.

It’s natural to want to discuss major events with friends and family. Here are some expert tips for how to talk about those sensitive topics in a respectful way.

Don't try to change someone's mind.

If you start from a place of believing that you have to convince the other person to come around to your position on an issue, you will fail, says Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics. "The biggest rule that I have is that if you're going to have a conversation with someone that you know has a very different point of view, you have to start with absolutely acknowledging and accepting that you will not change their mind," Dr. Safer says. "I like to think of trying to change somebody's mind politically as very much like trying to force somebody to fall in love with you. It's not effective."

Challenge your expectations.

It can be easier to allow strangers to have differing views, but when it comes to family and friends, we can often have different standards. "We have more of an expectation that our family will be on exactly the same page as us," says Alice Boyes, Ph.D., a former clinical psychologist and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit. "We take it more personally if they're not."

"There's something unsafe about that," Dr. Boyes says. When it comes to our parents, for example, we're used to them "being on our side and being predictable and reliable." When they're not, we feel less secure.

Remind yourself that relationships have many dimensions, not just one. The people who disagree with you may be your past, present, or future caretakers. Dr. Safer, who lived through leukemia, says. "I call it the chemotherapy test. [My husband] said, 'When you're lying in a bed receiving chemotherapy, you do not ask the political affiliations of the person standing next to you getting you through it.' That's what a human value is. Period."

Really listen.

Instead of persuading, the goal of the conversation should be understanding. In order to get a sense of the other person's point of view and for them to get a sense of yours, you have to bring your capacity for openness to the dialogue.

How can you do that? Ask a question in a curious way, using a non-aggressive tone. "If you really want to have a conversation, you might say, 'What is it about this idea that speaks to you?'" Dr. Safer says. Tone and words are crucial. If you say something like, “How could you vote for him?”, you're done before you start, Safer continues. Instead, try something along the lines of, "I'd like to understand why you feel the way you feel."

Don't raise your voice.

Try to speak in a calm tone at a normal volume. "If you raise your voice, the other person interprets it as shouting, and then you're done," Dr. Safer says.

Be humble.

"Your view on everything is not right," Dr. Boyes says. "Good ideas can come from lots of different places and lots of different people. You've got to find something to connect to. Sometimes you have to find respect for the other person."

Refrain from article thrusting.

When you feel like insisting that you're right and the other person is wrong, you might feel compelled to refer them to an article. Dr. Boyes says this is absolutely a deal-breaker if you want your debate to remain civil. Similarly, you want to keep the debate offline, because people can often bring out their worst selves in the comments or on social media. If it's someone you care about maintaining a relationship with, it's probably best to talk to them in person instead of responding to them on the internet.

Know when to walk away.

Is your heart rate ticking up? If that's the case, you won't be in the best place to respond calmly, Dr. Boyes says. Pay attention to your body. If your heart starts beating faster, it might be time to call a time out. "You have to know when to walk away from a conversation," she adds. "Know that there are opportunities to pick it back up."

You also have the option to refrain from engagement altogether if you feel that there's no chance of having a productive conversation. "You know what? Let's not," is one option Dr. Safer offers. Or, if a fight starts to escalate, let's say during a family dinner, you can be the peacekeeper. "Feel free, if people start to have a fight, say, 'Wait a minute. We're here to celebrate being together. We're not here to have a political fight. Please stop.'"