‘There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.’ – Eldridge Cleaver
We’ve been inundated for months with shallow tweets, inflammatory memes, and misinformation. We’re arguing, crying, and unfriending each other in record numbers. Many people are either dreading or outright cancelling upcoming holiday plans with the outlaws.
As an emergency department social worker, it was my job to bring a dose of calm and compassion when agitated patients resisted care or argued with doctors, nurses and security guards. Using a variety of verbal de-escalation techniques, I could effectively prevent volatile situations from becoming dangerous. This resulted in decreased violence, less use of physical restraints, and easier facilitation of medical care.
With family, friends and strangers – using some variation of those same techniques can also prevent a difference of opinion from ruining relationships, resulting in lower heart rates, decreased frustration, and easier facilitation of meaningful dialogue. Not to mention, fewer tearful apologies and ultimately a more peaceful community.
- Set realistic goals. No one is going to shift another person’s entire world view during a single conversation. So instead, let’s try for engaging with civility and a mutual exchange of ideas. The fight for social justice won’t be won in a single battle – and sometimes a victory means just staying calm. The goal is to earn your way to a second and third conversation.
- Accept that there will be discomfort. Find a thought or phrase you can meditate on to help you when things get heated, such as “I can handle this” or “I know what to do.” Sweaty palms and a racing heart won’t kill you, but cultivating a calm energy can transfer this to the other person and be reflected in their responses. Take care of yourself; it’s much easier to stay rational when you’re well-rested, well-fed and participate in regular meditation or exercise.
- Breathe. If you start to react emotionally, stop and come to a place of stillness before responding. This is especially helpful in texts, emails, and social media. After you’ve typed your initial response, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and then re-read what you’ve written. Go back and delete any words that are inflammatory or judgmental. During direct conversations, try to relax your shoulders and loosen your jaw, or say your calming mantra in your head if you start to feel yourself getting upset or defensive.
- Focus on feelings instead of facts. Facts are important, but feelings are what help a person decide which facts he/she will believe. Accept that another person’s feelings are real and try not to judge or discount them. Yes, this applies to everyone, even if they sound selfish, silly, or uninformed. We will never be able to open hearts and minds until we provide a safe and accepting space to talk. If you can’t make sense of another person’s feelings, then start with your own. “I feel nervous talking about this.” Place the blame on yourself for misunderstandings. “I’m having a hard time following” is much more effective than saying “That doesn’t make any sense.”
- Start with common ground. Find something, anything, you can agree on, and point that out. Some phrases I have used are “I totally agree that the media has a role in this.” and “We both want a better financial future.” Have your views changed on an issue? It can be helpful to reflect on a time when you saw things differently (more like them) and share a personal story about how/why your perspective changed.
- Listen. For real. Make a solid commitment to step into another person’s shoes and try to understand their unique perspective. Avoid mentally practicing for your next turn while you wait for them to finish talking. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with what they are saying; you just have to listen. Please note: this does not apply to being attacked or emotionally abuse. Choose carefully with whom you decide to engage. These conversations are most successful with people you genuinely liked and respected before you knew their political views.
- Answer only legitimate questions. “Why do liberals think they’re better than everyone?” is not a request for information, and it doesn’t advance the dialogue, so just ignore it. This is a great time to respond with a common ground statement such as “I know how you feel. I have a cousin who acts like that too.” Don’t try to answer questions that are posed to trigger, trap, or insult you.
- Ask only helpful questions. This will change as you reach new levels of connection. In the beginning, it might be “Is there anything you think we agree on?” or “What do you think we can do to help make things better?” In later conversations, it might be possible to take a closer look at specific issues, once some level of trust has been developed. Remember, you don’t have to agree. You just have to be willing to listen and learn. Asking sincere, open-ended questions often helps me understand what circumstances or life experiences led someone to form their beliefs and opinions.
- Keep some distance. A physical space of 1.5-3 feet between people has been shown to decrease anxiety during emotionally tense situations, so keep this in mind when deciding on place settings for Christmas! Online, this might mean temporarily unfollowing someone (not the same as unfriending). Or consider taking a break from the news and social media until you can come back with a renewed, positive energy.
- Say Thank You. Express sincere appreciation for someone else’s willingness to engage in meaningful conversation. Let them know what you appreciate about them and why you wanted to talk to them. “I was surprised when I saw what you posted, but I think you’re a wonderful mother/neighbor/friend. My respect for you prompted me to reach out and see if we can talk more about this.” Be willing to accept that he/she may not be ready. You have still honored the relationship and left the door open for future conversations. Just because someone isn’t ready to talk today, doesn’t mean they never will be.