A lot of people avoid talking about controversial issues due to fear or discomfort. As an academic, I have a hard time wrapping my head around being afraid to talk to someone because we might disagree on a matter. You see, discussing issues that are seen as controversial is a large part of how I make my living. I get paid to read, write, think, and talk about issues related to race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. To me, talking about such issues is a normal, natural, and important thing to do. I enjoy it.
So I am baffled when, in my “non-academic world,” someone shuts down at the mere mention of a controversial topic. “Don’t they know how fun such discussions can be?” I wonder. The answer, of course, is no, they don’t know that. My training has taught me that such discussions are not only safe but exciting. However, others’ experiences–real or imagined–have taught them that talking about controversial issues may lead to kerfuffles among friends and bad vibes all around. I’ve heard the following as explanations for avoiding certain topics in conversations: “there is no point; h/she is not going to change his/her mind”; “I don’t want to say anything that will offend someone”; “s/he is just going to get mad and I don’t want to ruin our relationship.”
I want people to know that some of the most interesting conversations happen around issues that are considered controversial. Think about it. The issues are not controversial because they are boring; they are controversial because they are important. Important issues are those in which there is something at stake. Controversial issues are those about which people have different takes on what is at stake and for whom. The controversy stems from a disagreement over whose interests matter the most.
To make matters more complicated, somewhere along the line, we have been convinced that someone has to change his or her mind in order for a discussion of a controversial topic to be worth having. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to popular belief, people can talk about issues without anyone having to be right or wrong. This isn’t to say that everyone’s opinion has equal merit; it is to say that it costs us nothing to listen carefully and thoughtfully to another’s point of view.
That is, people can hear and be heard in discussions with one another without having to name “winners” and “losers.” Unfortunately, most people have not learned how to take part strategically in conversations–note I did not say debates–about controversial issues. This needs to change because conversations about controversial issues have great potential for bridging the divides that threaten the well-being of our society at all levels. Where to begin?
Seek to understand before seeking to be understood
Productive, exciting, and intellectually challenging conversations happen when those involved really want to know what others think and why. That is, the best conversations happen when our wish to understand others’ points of view is stronger than our desire to express our own. As Stephen Covey stressed in his well-known best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, effective dialogue and win/win outcomes are possible when people come together seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. To put it another way, good things happen when we are willing to listen to what others have to say as opposed to preparing to shoot them down at the first opportunity. It’s that simple.
So what can we do?
Avoiding controversial topics in our conversations with others doesn’t make the topics any less controversial nor does it resolve related issues. Avoidance reinforces and adds to the ways in which we are divided. So, rather than avoiding conversations about controversial issues, we need to create and take advantage of opportunities to have them. Never miss opportunities to find out what you don’t know you don’t know and/or to better understand what doesn’t make sense to you. Take advantage of opportunities to connect with people across lines of difference.
Meanwhile, tell me, how do you feel when faced with the opportunity for such conversations? Do you avoid them? Do you jump right in? What advice do you have to offer? Please share and don’t forget to subscribe to Letters from the Coffee Shop!
Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.