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Help for Heated Topics

13 March 2018

Eden listened to Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart, on the On Being Podcast, and thought about the ways we approach (or don’t approach) controversial topics.

Tags: brene brown, communication, conflict, crucial conversations, eden listened, eden read, thoughtful candor

I don’t know about you, but I have a foolproof, go-to mechanism for dealing with controversial topics. It’s called avoidance. For a long time that’s what I thought you were supposed to do when someone you either don’t know very well or know entirely too well brought up politics, religion, or any other similarly-charged topic at family get togethers. You pretend to mull over it, you nod, and then you change the subject or ask, “Who wants dessert?”

Often times I tell myself a story that if I already know I disagree with someone, then it’s polite to say nothing. However, last week I came face to face with my tendency to avoid controversy while listening to Brené Brown on the On Being podcast. Throughout most of the podcast, she and host Krista Tippett discuss the concept of belonging and Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness. In their discussion, Brown borrows a definition of civility from a nonprofit organization, the Institute of Civility in Government. Brown reads that civility is “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs, without degrading someone else’s in the process.” When I heard this, I realized that lately I’ve been falling for the “sucker’s choice” when it comes to dialogue.

I think that one of the reasons civility in dialogue is so hard to achieve is because we’re not very good at holding multiple viewpoints in front of us at the same time. That’s why we curate our news sources, Twitter feeds, and listservs to avoid reading opinions that aren’t consistent with what we already “know” to be true—or at least that’s what I do. When you think about it, it’s no wonder we are uncomfortable sitting with and discussing information that doesn’t validate our own set of beliefs.

I know that it is going to take a lot of practice for me to become comfortable participating in dialogue on topics that I typically avoid. However, I have found that I am less defensive and a much better listener when I remember one of the ground rules that Allison often uses when she facilitates conversations. She says, “I know many of us have come here today hoping to change someone else's mind. Wouldn’t it be nice if we left ourselves open to the possibility of having our minds changed?”

What about you? Do you have any advice for approaching civil dialogue about controversial topics? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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