HCT January 2021

How To Have Difficult Conversations With Those You Disagree With

As we get through this holiday season, some of us will be visiting family and friends whose political, religious and societal views are much different from our own. Most of us have heard the adage “never talk politics, religion, or money.” These days, however, it is just about impossible to avoid talking politics and politically-related topics such as NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, racial justice protests, debates over wearing a mask and whether to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and the legitimacy of the 2020 election. 

Freely expressing your thoughts with your like-minded friends and family can be a great outlet to share what is on your mind and your frustration with the current state of the world.. But it can be awkward to be in situations where you are the odd one out such as sitting at a table of people who vehemently disagree with your worldview and beliefs. I have been in this situation many times over the past few years. Here are some suggestions for handling difficult conversations with those you disagree with.

  • Set/establish ground rules. If you know in advance that attempting to have awkward conversations is going to be fruitless due to the entrenched beliefs of the people involved, it may be a good idea to establish a “no politics” zone. I have been in a few situations where there was a tacit agreement to avoid talking politics. At our wedding rehearsal dinner a few years ago, my future father-in-law attempted to initiate a political discussion with a long-time friend. She very sweetly, sincerely and succinctly told him “I don’t talk politics with you.” And that was that. Another time a political issue was brought up at a dinner party I attended. The host of the party quickly interjected and stated “We don’t talk politics at this table.” Again, that was that. If you are hosting a gathering, setting the parameters with your guests beforehand or at the start of a meal is a good way to set the tone for the gathering. Otherwise, you may have to intervene later if conversations begin to get heated.
  • Choose your battles. I have an uncle who is a retired lawyer and judge who loves to argue. Even as a child, my mother remembers him stirring the proverbial pot with his seven siblings and then leaving the table once everyone else was arguing. He is still a troublemaker and loves to get under people’s skins by bringing up topics he knows they disagree with him on. My mother’s advice to me was simple: “just ignore him and don’t take the bait.” This advice I have largely followed over the years, not just around my uncle who I have seen maybe once or twice in the last decade but in other more recent settings. I travel a lot with my husband to his business conferences. His industry is largely a conservative one, which means I am often at tables as that “odd one out.” In these situations, I have largely kept my mouth shut and have tried to deftly change the conversation if I am able. I do not feel it is my place to start arguments with my husband’s business associates who I do not know or may never see again. I try to sit at the end of the table which allows me to tune out what may be said or I engage in conversations with people at other tables.
  • Call out abhorrent statements. Unfortunately racism and bigotry still persist in the world and sometimes we find ourselves in social situations involving people whose views are entirely different from ours. If you find yourself in a setting where someone is expressing racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic or misogynistic views, there are a few ways to handle the unpleasantness. You can simply state, “Do not use [insert slur here] around me.” Or, if someone is sharing a racist or bigoted joke, play dumb and say, “I don’t get it – can you explain the punchline to me?” Being forced to explain themselves could make the joke tellers feel some embarrassment and maybe shut them down. Ultimately, being around people who hold and express such views is difficult and unpleasant. If you have  friends or family who hold such beliefs and are more than likely to share them, consider limiting the time you spend with them either by not going to visit them at all or limiting the length of your visits. 
  • Keep your emotions in check. If  you get trapped in a conversation with someone whose views you do not share, remember that your feelings of discomfort are natural and try to keep your emotions in check while calmly sharing your views (this definitely takes practice!). Avoid name-calling; after all, no one changes their mind when being called stupid. And if you start to feel yourself getting too worked up, end the conversation by excusing yourself as politely as you can.  You can always try again later. And try to avoid getting caught in a conversation with someone who has been drinking. Check out  the NPR StoryCorps podcast series on “Across the Great Divide:” https://storycorps.org/podcast/across-the-great-divide/ 
  • Determine what your goals are. In choosing to engage with anyone whose views are different from yours, decide ahead of time what your ultimate purpose is. Are you trying  to change minds or just offering another viewpoint that perhaps will get someone to see an issue differently? Some people are persuaded with facts while others come to change their worldview simply by being in the presence of a different community. The link below tells an extraordinary story of how a former white nationalist who came to renounce his beliefs when an Orthodox Jew at his college invited him to attend weekly shabbat dinners, which he eventually attended for several years as his beliefs shifted: Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson: Befriending Radical Disagreement https://onbeing.org/programs/derek-black-and-matthew-stevenson-befriending-radical-disagreement/ 
  • Remember our shared humanity. Being around people with viewpoints that are the antithesis to yours can be difficult, especially if they are family. Perhaps they came to their beliefs due to their upbringing or from a steady media diet established to promote  fear and hatred. Whatever their positions, try to remember the common ground and common interests you do share. In this time of extreme polarization, it is hard to see past people’s political affiliations and partisanship. When we reduce people to their political beliefs, we can lose sight of their humanity.

Other Suggested resources: 

How to Have a Good Conversation When You Disagree: https://grottonetwork.com/navigate-life/relationships/how-to-have-good-conversation-when-you-disagree/

Holiday conversation survival guide: https://www.instagram.com/soyouwanttotalkabout/guide/holiday-conversations-survival-guide/18180478573008945/?igshid=188l1myzbg9ul 

Madeline Sims

Member of the HCT Team