There’s no going back is there? The demons are out of the box, and there’s no pretending they don’t exist. A lot of us have discovered that people close to us have some really harsh opinions that don’t jive at all with how we see the world. Lots of folks are looking around them and realizing that they can’t be true to their values if they stay silent, if they pretend this isn’t happening, but how to have those hard conversations? Where to start?
If you’ve got those hard political conversations covered, then that’s great. This article isn’t for you. If you never wonder what to say to Uncle Phil or that friend of a friend at the girls’ night out when they start spouting that same old nonsense, then stop reading.
But for the rest of you, what if I told you that there’s a few basic guidelines that have gotten me through more hard political conversations than I can count? That so far I’ve managed to keep my social relationships intact AND stand firm on what I believe in? That there IS a way to have your cake and eat it too? (really, who thought up that adage? It’s MY cake. Damn straight I’m gonna eat it… but moving along..)
It’s OK to be THAT Person
I’m known among my friends as the one who won’t back down from a tough conversation. I’m the person the eyes flick to in the group when someone says something racist or homophobic, because people know I’m coming to collect that nonsense. I insist on holding a certain line, especially these days. But I’ve also managed to maintain friendships over the years with people with very differing viewpoints. I’ve had these conversations with family members and co-workers and priests (priests! Sweet Jesus!) and even complete strangers. There’s a fine balance that can be struck. You can do this.
I refuse to believe that people are unredeemable. I’ve seen people who were spouting some really racist statements slowly over the years come around to be outspoken allies. Now, let’s dig into that before you go charging off trying to reform everybody—it took years, and it took multiple people all working to intervene. No one is going to be cured of their racist or sexist or homophobic beliefs overnight. So take that pressure off your shoulders. Whew! What a relief, right? You don’t have to save the world tomorrow.
But DON’T SIT DOWN YET. Success comes from multiple people working together over time, right? So it’s on all of us to start the work NOW because we need all hands on deck and turning this boat is going to be slow work.
But how do I do this, really? I hear you saying. I‘m gonna make people mad, I’m gonna ruin the event. No you’re not. You might make someone a little uncomfortable because they’re no longer getting unlimited airtime to say whatever crap comes into their heads, but that’s very different from angry or or ruining anything. It’s all gonna be Ok.
So here’s my list of tips for having hard conversations, drawn from a lifetime of talking to people about immigration reform and racial justice and gay rights.
Ready to dive in?
1. Take a deep breath
This is really key. Breathe, y’all.
You can’t have these hard conversations if you’re being triggered. If it’s online, you can step away from the computer or put down your phone and collect yourself before responding. If it’s face-to-face we don’t have that luxury, but at least you can pull a deep breath all the way down to the bottom of your lungs and slowly push it out again.
Give yourself that moment to pull in some peace and push out your anger. There is a place for anger in politics, but it’s not going to help here. Breathe deep, calm yourself, and collect your thoughts.
2. Start with the small and universal
Find that simple, universal truth that we all can agree upon. Immigration? Every parent will do everything they can to provide for their families. Race? Everyone deserves to live to their fullest potential without restriction. Gay marriage? It’s all about loving and honoring the person you love.
Size up your target, think about what grounds their world, and pick a basic value from their playbook.
Yes, it’s simplistic. We need to get down to universal values. To the things that connect us all. That help us to stand in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective.
3. Tell Stories
For God’s sakes, throw out all those facts you memorized. If I see one more liberal try to win an argument starting with facts and white papers I’m gonna have a fricckin’ meltdown.
Also especially because if you’re anything like me, you’re going to forget where you read it or what the exact numbers were! That’s just going to open your arguments to attack. They’re going to quote some crazy article they read somewhere, and then you’re off down a rabbit-hole where their ultra-conservative propaganda piece is put on the same journalistic footing as the New York Times. It’s a waste of time.
Tell stories instead. Use facts–but instead of a study or report use first or second-hand facts drawn from your experience or other peoples’ everyday lives. This is where it’s helpful to have done some research in advance. Expose yourself to others’ experiences. Read personal accounts in the news. Join Facebook groups and lurk in the background just listening and understanding how oppressed groups have to navigate their worlds. Go make friends with people different from yourself and LISTEN. When the time comes, share their stories (removing all identifying information if it’s a private individual not a news story, obviously).
Say things like, “I had some Muslim co-workers, and this is what they told me…” or “I’ve read a bunch of accounts and I hear that…”
People create narratives that define their memberships in groups. Long ago, that was for our survival when sticking together could mean life or death. If you try to push them away from their narrative, it will cause them to feel separated from their group. And humans are wired for connection; we’ll fight that with everything we’ve got. So instead of changing their minds, people end up doubling-down on their beliefs. Sound familiar?
So what you’re trying to do is insert group stories that offer a different narrative. Or maybe you want to tell a story that expands their idea of their in-group, that helps them to see that others’ struggles are the same as theirs. Make the stories personal, and make sure that your stories connect back to the simple universal value you’re trying to get across. And while you’re at it, connect it to your own core values. Make your story a modern morality tale–from your point of view.
4. Share–don’t claim–the moral highground
Probably the person you’re talking to has decided that they’re right. They may even think they’ve got their religion or other moral backing for spouting that offensive malarky. Remember, they’re trying to define their place in a group.
Stake your position on the moral high ground as well. I’m not saying push them off. Trying to claim a moral high ground superior to theirs will make them defensive. But make yourself a space, an alternate interpretation of the high ground that puts you at equal standing.
There can be more than one way to see this world. The high ground can be shared. Be shameless in defending this truth.
For example, if they are anti-immigration explain that you believe strongly in the parable of the Stranger, that we should welcome newcomers. Anti-gay rights? You believe in loving your neighbor and that even the Pope has stated that it’s not our place–only God’s–to judge.
They may not immediately accept your way of viewing the world–in fact I wouldn’t expect them to–but at least establish that yours is of equal value.
5. Choose your battles
Remember that this work will not be done overnight. You will do your piece, and then days, months later another one of us will pick up the shield and sword and do another piece. You will not cure someone of all their prejudiced beliefs with one conversation, so don’t even try.
Choose the one, small piece that you ARE going to try to move. Maybe you’re going to convince them that not all Muslims are terrorists, that they’re actually doctors and teachers and computer programmers and hairstylists and so many other things. Or that not all Black boys are thugs. Or that gay men are not trying to seduce their children. Pick one, just one. And stop there.
If the battle you’re picking is connected with their own personal story, if they’ve got emotional energy connected to it, then you’re going to have start even smaller. For example, I’ve got a friend who’s really pro-gun ownership. On top of those beliefs, his house was also attacked by robbers. So I’m not going to be able to get him to see my point of view about gun control overnight. It’s just too emotionally charged. So instead we talk about gun safety, national patterns, and responsible gun ownership. And we’re still talking–see how that works?
Your goal may be just introducing the idea that there’s another way to see this problem. That there can be two moral highgrounds. That may be your small victory for the day, and that’s Ok.
Stand your ground
Most of all, the fact that you engaged in the hard conversation is a victory. It sends the message that conversations on certain topics will receive push-back. That their ways of seeing the world are not the absolute truth on an issue. In areas like racism and homophobia, that’s a really important thing to do.
I care about impact. If people know enough to not say racist crap in my presence, then I’ve created a safe circle for others near me. People can go on thinking their yucky thoughts if I can’t get through to them. Just as long as they’re not unleashing it on anyone.
You’re also opening the door for other people around you, perhaps people who–like you–are just finding their voice. You’re setting an example of courage. Enough of us do this and we’ll start moving the dial on what is acceptable in our private conversations. We’ll create many, overlapping safe spaces that will spread outwards. This, in turn, will start moving the dial about what we accept as a society in general.
So do your piece. Your one, small piece. Tomorrow I’ll do mine. Together we can do this. Let’s get started!
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