Beyond Rational: How To Discuss Contentious Topics and Keep Your Cool

In “civilized” society, we know that one of the cardinal rules is that there are certain topics one just simply does not bring up: politics, religion, money, and sex. The problem, of course, is that without these subjects most dinner parties devolve into inane conversations about the weather, and online communities such as Newsvine would not even exist. Being a lifelong veteran of the art of asking questions which bring dinner parties to a sudden and ominous silence, and yet rather partial to discussions which go somewhere other than “taking it outside”, I thought it might be of value to share some of the insights and techniques I have acquired over the years in the hopes that we can all get a little farther in discussing topics which are actually topics (as opposed to the weather, which I assure you really isn’t).

Lesson One: What you can control, and what you can’t

The first thing which needs to be stated may seem obvious, but it is easy to forget once you are headlong into a discussion of your dinner companion’s sexual preferences. There are two parties in any discussion: you, and everybody else. You only control the actions and thoughts of one of these parties (I will let you figure out which one). Do not expect your expectations of the conversation to be shared, do not expect to control its direction exclusively, do not expect the other participants to share your beliefs or even your dedication to calm discussion. They most likely won’t, and there is nothing you can do about it. Accept it right from the beginning. There are, however, things you can do which will normally keep the conversation from spiraling too far out onto the path which leads to fisticuffs.

Lesson Two: It’s not about you.

The single most important thing to remember when your conversational companion starts shaking their turkey leg in your face and screaming that you are a bleeding heart liberal is that it is not really about you.
I know it seems like it is. I know they are looking at you with their wide, scary eyes and I know that they are screaming your name. But actually, it is all about them, and their accumulated experience and their fears and prejudices. Most often, they don’t even know you, really, and so there is no way they are in a position to judge. So sit back and relax and don’t take it personally. If you can stay calm, you can still turn this thing around.

Lesson Three: Phrase your argument carefully

This applies whether you are writing an article for a forum such as Newsvine, or you are getting ready to interrupt a conversation over h’ors doeurves with a stunning and imaginative theory on the roots of domestic violence. Think carefully about how you say what you say. You know you are about to put a foot in it, you know you are going to say something others may not be ready to hear. Consider starting with a simple acknowledgement of the fact:

I know that this is a topic on which many people have strong opinions, but I have a theory. Please hear me out and try to consider it.

Just giving people a little warning can often help them to transition to a contentious topic without immediately launching into an emotional reaction.

Consider also the terms you are using, being aware that some phrasing is more likely to prompt an automatic response than others. “Hot Terms” can make people get their guns out before you even finish your opening sentence. What these terms are will vary over time, but if you are unsure you can just reference whatever the latest flame wars (online) or screaming matches (in your kitchen) were about and you will probably be able to identify them. Things like “media bias”, “hacked election”, and “torture lite” have been with us for a while now, and as soon as you see them you know your stance. Try to keep them out of your arguments as much as you can. Euphemize if you must. If you are making an argument which simply must include a “hot term”, be sure to preface it with as much factual foundation as you can. Which brings us to the next vital point…

Lesson Four: Keep it factual

Again, this is not always possible. If, for example, you are having a discussion about the potential to alter human awareness through the symbolism in pornography (one of my personal favourites), you are not going to be able to provide a factual basis for all your points. You can always find some facts somewhere for some part of your argument, however, and you should incorporate them as much as you can. The reason for this, aside from the way it tends to improve the quality of your argument, is that facts are not emotional. Facts are neutral. If someone has a problem with your facts, you can simply calmly direct them to the source. It takes the focus of any anger off of you, which is a good thing if you want the conversation to continue.

Lesson Five: Be polite

No matter what they say, no matter what they do…be polite. Go beyond that. Smile, nod, exhibit interest in their point of view (after all, if you wanted to talk to yourself you could have addressed the mirror or your collection of finger puppets). Let them talk, even if you are privately saying to yourself that they are making no sense whatsoever. Never tell them that in your opinion, they are making no sense whatsoever. It will make them mad, every time. If they start frothing at the mouth, politely excuse yourself and give them time to calm down. You could probably use another drink, anyway. If they seem to be caught in a quagmire of emotional rhetoric, carefully and gently help them find their way back to the actual issue at hand. Assume that they really mean well, and would like to argue reasonably. Ask questions aimed to help them clarify their thoughts, and infer their position if necessary (making sure to ask if that is really what they mean).

Assure others that they do not have to agree with you to earn your goodwill, and present reasonable arguments you have heard which contradict your own. Be willing to admit errors in your argument, and allow them to see that you are considering their words. Never, ever resort to personal attacks or judgments. Your opinion of the other participant’s probable education in a trailer park outhouse has nothing whatsoever to do with your argument. Keep it to yourself.

Remember why you got yourself into this, in the first place.

We start these discussions because we have something to say which we feel may be of benefit to others to hear, or because we think it would be interesting to hear what others have to say. We go into it wanting an exchange of ideas with a person who is not ourselves, who is different. As humans, however, we have a tendency to fear and despise those who are different from ourselves. Over the course of many conversations in my life I have found, however, that no matter in how many ways I may be different from another person, we inevitably also have something in common. Many strange and valuable ideas have been given to me by people who seemed on the surface to represent everything I thought I stood against. We talk to other people because that is how we grow, both as individuals and as a species.

In the midst of your next frustrating conversation with a person of different ilk, remember why it is that you came there in the first place. No one forced you to do it. After all, you could be sitting there, talking about the weather.