6 Key Steps to Navigate Difficult Conversations on Controversial Topics

Whether it be over COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests, or the upcoming presidential election, many people are finding themselves in uncomfortable and often heated conversations with coworkers, friends, family members, or even significant others who hold opposing views.

To have an actual conversation as opposed to arguing over who is right and who is wrong, both people need the space to share their views, and both people need the respect of having those views heard. It’s easier said than done, of course, but below are six steps to help you move these conversations from destructive to constructive.

(Keep in mind – you can only control yourself, not the other person. But changing your behaviors will alter the dynamic of the conversation.)

1. Pay Attention to Your Body.

If you’ve never practiced meditation or mindfulness, this may be difficult, but don’t worry, it’s doable. It’s all about the pause. When we are upset, frustrated, angry, or feel any other negative emotion, we go into reaction mode. This means that we respond without intentionally choosing the response. While it’s a great survival technique if a saber tooth tiger is attacking you, it isn’t beneficial when discussing heated topics.

This defense mode is triggered because we tense up. We get tight. Rather than remain relaxed and open, we restrict. This is a visceral response that you can feel in your body… but only if you’re paying attention. I imagine the specifics differ for people, but for me, it’s like an uncomfortable stirring feeling around my heart. Like I’m all flustered internally. If I allow it to go unchecked, it usually then travels north and comes out as tears. And crying is never helpful in these conversations! For many though, it manifests as anger.

Pay attention to your body so you can learn what this feeling is for you. Noticing this trigger in you is critical to remain calm, level-headed, and intentional in difficult conversations. They are, after all, usually no place for emotions or tears.

2. Take the Pause.

When you notice that trigger – and this is key – you must pause. Feel the trigger and sit in the awareness of it for just a couple of seconds. These couple seconds are crucial because they allow you to choose what you say next instead of immediately responding in defensive autopilot mode. In those couple seconds, focus on trying to relax the internal tension. It’s kind of like taking a deep breath but on a deeper level than in your lungs alone. Like a sigh for your soul.

Heads up that your body might fight you on relaxing but know that you are (or can get) stronger than your emotions. It’s like a muscle that you may need to work out several times before you get it strong enough to overcome the intense pull to get frustrated, angry, and stop listening. The pause allows you to exercise that muscle.

3. Practice Self-Awareness.

The pause serves as a time to check yourself, tell yourself to relax, and to begin to question the tightening.

What is he/she saying that is upsetting me?

Why is it upsetting me so much?

What do I think it means for me and my life?

Does it actually mean that for me and my life?

Do I really want to give this individual and this conversation the power to upset me?

You cannot always trust your emotions. They are present not because of what that person actually said or believes, but because of what you think what that person said or believes means for you and your life. It’s always actually about you. Your defenses go up for protection because on a deep level, you think someone is attacking you personally. But people can believe things that are entirely opposite to you and it doesn’t have anything to do with you. It doesn’t need to mean anything at all for your life or who you are. And even if they are personally attacking you, you don’t have to believe them. What matters is what you know to be true about yourself.

Now, that doesn’t give you the excuse to assume you’re always right. Each of us has the responsibility to continually consider where we might be wrong, where we can learn, and where we can grow. This takes radical self-honesty and personal accountability for your thoughts and actions. Other people may point out where you are falling short, but it’s on you to self-reflect and determine if that’s true. And it’s on you to change it.

4. Practice Empathy.

Try to see things from their point of view. Seek to understand where they are coming from, the experiences they have had in their life, and why they may think and feel the way they do. Empathy is a powerful practice that can not only strengthen your relationships with others but improve your ability to make better decisions for yourself. Studies show that practicing empathy helps strengthen your prefrontal cortex, the area of your brain responsible for decision-making and self-control.

When you can see and understand someone’s point of view, you can then validate it. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but you can recognize that it exists. Telling someone that you hear and understand where they are coming from is a great tool to bring down their defenses. If your walls are down from practicing self-awareness, and their walls are down because they feel seen and heard, you are now both open and able to have a constructive conversation.

5. Show Vulnerability.

So often, we draw a hard line in the sand and refuse to budge because we think doing so means admitting we were wrong. But what is the problem with admitting when we are wrong? It isn’t a weakness. It takes great strength to admit to a mistake, acknowledge that you don’t know everything, and be open to seeing things differently. It is a sign of true self-confidence because it means you know that mistakes don’t define you.

We tend to see vulnerability as a weakness when, really, it is our greatest strength. For it shows we are self-aware and continuing to grow. It shows there are no limits to what we can learn. So have the courage to keep an open mind, the willingness to change it, and the strength to admit when you were wrong. Doing so will help build trust and create a space where it is safe for others to change their mind as well.

6. Share Your Process.

Help people have empathy towards you. Don’t seek pity, but rather help them understand how and why you’ve come to the conclusions that you have. Let them into your mind and your life so they can relate to where you are coming from.

Our paths are all different. Seeing that helps us understand why our views and beliefs are different. Recognizing everyone has their own story and perspective is an essential first step to ever finding common ground.

Happy Slacking,

Kacie Main

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