MICHIGAN—Family get-togethers can be contentious, especially when dinner time turns into a free-for-all debate with your kooky uncle from away. What was once civil conversations can rapidly escalate into heated debates unless you avoid “explosive topics” like current political, social, and religious issues.
But our democracy was founded on our ability to have productive debates over pertinent issues.
So, how can you avoid idling safely in a ho-hum conversation filled with pleasantries and open up honest discussions on matters that are important to you with those who disagree? More importantly, how can you feel heard?
Try these ten tips for your next gathering:
1. Prepare ahead of time.
You may be thinking, “how can I prepare ahead of time if I don’t know when I will have these heated exchanges?” Well, this really means knowing why you believe what you do. If you have a belief that you hold strongly, make sure you have a logical basis for that belief based on data, facts, and sound reasoning. Discover what core principles you have that are unshakable and allow them to inform your views on more specific topics. Finally, research counterarguments to your beliefs and see if you can rationally negate those arguments while standing confident in your own position.
Do not regurgitate sound bites, studies, headlines, lectures, or other people, without making sure you have researched your point. Do you understand the methodology of the study you’re citing? Did you fact-check the zinger your friend told you? What is the context of the sound bite you want to quote? Did you even read the full article or just the headline? Doing your homework will make you a more convincing and rational interlocutor. People of all stripes respect people who have strong knowledge behind their beliefs and have a firm grounding in their principles.
2. Make your conversation partner feel heard.
Making your conversation partner feel heard is important to change their mind. Still, it is often easier said than done—especially if they’re frothing at the mouth and furiously ranting at the dinner table. So remember to speak at a normal volume, avoid terms like “debate” or “argument,” and remember that body language is a powerful tool in making your conversation partner feel safe.
Sit comfortably, breathe normally, uncross your arms, and do not roll your eyes or make antagonizing gestures. If you look comfortable and genuinely interested in what the other person is saying, no matter how much you may disagree, the tension of the discussion will be lowered. Don’t forget to maintain eye contact!
3. Set aside your passion.
Being passionate about something does not make you a good advocate for it. If your passion and emotions cloud your judgment, communication, and ability to stay calm, then it may be time to start practicing how to channel your passion in a way that makes you a more effective communicator and advocate. By learning to set aside your passion, you will become a more calm and collected conversationalist that prompts better responses from people.
4. Establish common ground.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, we seem to all inhabit different realities. Therefore, before beginning any conversation on a hot-button political, social, or religious issue, it is crucial to establish common ground. Find facts, realities, and values that you and your partner share and can be used to establish a firm basis to move forward. Establishing common ground is also essential to building a rapport with your partner and showing that you’re not their enemy. Proving you’re not their enemy by framing a dialogue that seeks to build consensus rather than proving them wrong is crucial to changing their mind—or at least beginning the process of changing their mind.
5. Admit when they make a good point.
Admitting when your conversation partner makes a good point can be challenging. However, inevitably, in any conversation around a religious, political, or social issue, it is likely the other person will make a good point (okay, at least a decent point).
When it happens, it is crucial to concede. Doing this shows you are a good-faith communicator who seeks to live out your values rather than win an argument. If the point is so good that it makes you reconsider your entire position, write it down, do some research later, and adjust your views or arguments if necessary. If they make a minor point, acknowledge it and return to your larger argument. Refusing to concede any decent point the other side makes will not convince anyone that you are genuinely seeking out what’s best for everyone. You will instead risk coming off as petty and arrogant.
6. Talk At Their Level
Nobody likes to be talked down to, and nobody is an expert on everything. In fact, this may surprise you, but people often have very strong opinions on subjects they know little about.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are knowledgeable on a topic, but you’re communicating with someone who is not, refrain from using jargon, esoteric language, and academic phraseology. Doing this makes your ideas and arguments more understandable and approachable, rendering you a more effective advocate for your beliefs.
7. Ask Questions
It seems simple, but it is surprising how often people don’t ask any questions. If you are unclear on what someone is saying or trying to advocate for—ask clarifying questions. You cannot change their mind if you do not know what their mind thinks.
Questions can also work to cut to the heart of someone’s belief system. Once you understand someone’s core principles, it provides the necessary bedrock to change their mind. This way, you will appeal to their core beliefs rather than merely attacking an argument they’re making derived from those beliefs. Finally, you can use questions to get your conversation partner to prove themselves wrong by making them reflect on their own statements that don’t make sense or contradict other points they’ve made.
8. Let the Other Person Speak…Even If They Talk…A Lot
One of the most effective ways to demonstrate conversing in good faith and listening to your partner is to let them speak, even if they talk—a lot. Like many of these tips, this one takes practice. It requires a conscious effort not to interrupt someone and to sit through something you may disagree with strongly.
However, if someone is talking a lot, one thing you can do is take notes of their arguments using your phone or a pen and paper. Your opponent may rant for a while and bring up numerous points, which may be hard to recall once they’re done. By taking notes while they’re talking, you can quickly go down the list and address their individual arguments one at a time. The good news, though, is that if you feel like someone is talking too much and dominating the conversation, everyone in the room is likely noticing that too.
9. Don’t Be Afraid To Disengage
A civil conversation is productive when it ends in consensus. When discussing a topic you and your conversation partner are passionate about, it can be easy to talk in circles. This doesn’t move the conversation in any direction and definitely not toward a consensus. In these situations, it may be necessary to take a step back and return to the discussion later. Disengaging doesn’t mean you are running away or giving up, but rather it gives both you and the other person time to calm down, gather your thoughts, and give sincere consideration to what the other person has said so far. During this reflection, you can notice possible commonalities between both sides and do more research to prove your side and/or evolve your argument. This will allow you to return refreshed and ready to move the conversation forward productively.
10. Understand It May Take More Than One Conversation
Nobody is going to change their mind overnight, but perhaps at least you can help them respect your point of view. It often takes slow, incremental steps to make any noticeable change in a person’s beliefs.
Often people have held the same beliefs for years, if not their entire life. So one conversation is not going to erase a lifetime of opinions. While it might be hard to accept this, you will only truly be able to change a person’s mind once you realize it will likely take numerous civil conversations and a whole lot of work.
This story was originally published at the First Amendment Museum as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org.