Let’s Talk Tips for challenging conversations in a divided community (or household)

By Dan Meisel   |   December 7, 2021

Public speaking is a commonly held fear, but I have noticed a dramatic rise in fear of speaking privately – particularly with those whom we love and respect, but also disagree. Local conversations about school bonds, water, masks, racism, elections, and conspiracies escalate with unnerving speed and ferocity, as if all these issues are connected to two possible outcomes, each feeling apocalyptic to the opposing view.

As someone often engaged in emotional conversations spanning the political spectrum, I have found a few guidelines helpful for protecting relationships while confronting the elephant in the room.

First, binary framing — being for or against something — often limits the richness and nuance of a conversation. Very few issues are that simple. One can be “for” law enforcement and “against” systemic racism in law enforcement. Getting past the unhelpful rhetorical labels and diving into the nuance is usually where disagreements are best addressed. It also helps to start with areas of agreement, and then share concerns.  

Second, letting your opinions or group affiliations define you may limit your openness to new information and get in the way of your ability to think critically. I often see invitations like this: “If you agree with us, please join our group and conversation.” Group members trumpet their involvement, and some describe themselves by referencing the groups they belong to. They often expel members who express disagreement.

Such groups can be effective for advocacy, but they can isolate us in echo chambers and limit exposure to alternative viewpoints. Here is an alternative invitation you can try: “We seem to have much in common, but we appear to disagree on this issue. Can we meet to see if we can identify common ground or to educate each other about it?” Regardless of your group affiliations, defining yourself as a critical thinker, passionate about solutions and open to new information is more likely to result in constructive conversations outside of your echo chambers.

Third, asking others about their feelings rather than their opinions can result in richer conversations. When you ask another’s opinion, they express their conclusion that is unlikely to change. When you ask about their feelings, you tend instead to hear about personal experiences and fears that help you understand their ideological journey. It gives you an opportunity to empathize and to explore other avenues that might offer desired outcomes. It is often a more productive conversation that strengthens rather than threatens relationships.

Fourth, avoiding dehumanizing language and rhetorical exaggeration can help keep defense shields down. Our elected officials — on right and left — have not been “monsters,” “evil,” or “tyrants.” They don’t warrant comparisons to Nazis and doing so trivializes and diminishes victims and survivors of Nazi atrocities. When people scare or confuse us, we tend to dehumanize them. It is a defense mechanism to distance ourselves from perceived threats, but a dangerous defense mechanism because when we dehumanize people, it becomes all the easier to treat them inhumanely.

Fifth, it is usually worth the effort to seek out or construct environments suited to meaningful conversations. Conversing on a social platform that requires or encourages brevity often prevents conversations from digging into important nuance. The fact that no one criticized your social media group post or spoke in opposition when your group packed a school board meeting does not mean opposition didn’t exist. It may simply mean others didn’t find the forum welcoming. Constructive environments tend to be “brave” spaces in which you both accept that you will feel uncomfortable and maybe even defensive but can say something difficult or scary and listen fully to things that may be hard to hear. Constructive conversations may feel uncomfortable, but can be conducted with care and compassion.

Sixth, valuing outcomes based on facts rather than facts based on desired outcomes is more likely to lead us to places of agreement. A 2014 study by Duke University demonstrated how both Republican and Democrat participants tended to trust factual statements only if accompanied by policy solutions they preferred. Other studies have found this same tendency. As a result, we have become better at constructing arguments against undesired outcomes than we have at investigating relevant facts and exploring practical solutions. Inviting those you disagree with to join you in revisiting the facts you both think you know may help you both construct a more aligned path forward.

Lastly (only because of limited space here), very few conversations are truly and immediately existential, so keeping the volume low and avoiding dismissive judgments can help others feel more comfortable and interested in coming back for more.

In the coming weeks I will delve into some divisive subjects in our community and how they can be addressed civilly with these guidelines in mind.

Dan Meisel is Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Santa Barbara/Tri-Counties office.  He previously chaired that office’s Advisory Board as well as a national ADL Task Force on Education Equity.


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