In today’s hyper-polarized world it has become nearly impossible to have a fruitful conversation with anyone with whom you disagree.  All it takes is a slightly “political” post on social media to stir up the hornet nest and watch as people sting each other back and forth from the comfort of their own computer or phone. 

For some, watching people interact with your social media post about a controversial topic provides a dopamine boost, creating the desire to start posting more frequently.  For others, the divisiveness and hurt caused by such arguments leads to a full retreat, refraining from ever posting about or commenting on anything “political” ever again. 

For those who are caught somewhere in the middle, here are four suggestions that might help you engage in respectful debate without burning bridges and losing friends:

  1. Agree on Definitions

One of the more common things I’ve been seeing in heated conversations—both online and in person—is that the people who are arguing past each other aren’t even arguing about the same thing.  The problem is, they’re not aware of this fact.

Take a debate about racism, for example. 

One person says, “I’m not a racist.  I don’t believe in racism.  Stop making such a big deal about it.” 

The other person says, “You are a racist whether you realize it or not.  Racism isn’t something you can choose to “believe” in or not.  It’s simply a reality within our systems and structures.”

These two people are not talking about the same thing.  Though they are using the same words, their definitions of racism differ greatly.  Until they come to an understanding about the definitions they are using, there is no hope for any sort of understanding.

2. Listen to the Other Person

This is easier said than done.  As much as I’d like to think to myself, “Of course I listen to the other side of the argument,” when it comes down to it, my natural inclination is to share my opinion as quickly into the conversation as possible.

Listening to the other person requires me to pause long enough to actually hear (or read) what the other person is saying and do my best to understand WHY they are saying it Why has this person reached the conclusion they have?  What is it from their unique life experience that has shaped their opinion?  And… (and this is the hard question to ask)… is there any chance at all that the other person could actually be right (which means admitting there’s a chance that I could be wrong)?

3. Argue Against Yourself

This is a practice that I’ve just recently started doing, and I’ve found it very helpful.  When I find myself in a disagreement with someone, I ask myself, “If I were in their shoes, how would I argue against my argument?”  This forces me to stop and consider the strengths within the other person’s point of view, as well as the weaknesses in my own opinion.  Whether or not the other person actually points those weaknesses out doesn’t matter.  The result is that I humble myself long enough to consider the reality that even when I feel sure about something, there are valid blind spots and critical questions to consider. 

4. Proceed with Grace

Lastly, after agreeing on definitions, listening to the other person, and arguing against yourself, you have to proceed with grace.  It would be a complete waste of potential if you went through these first three steps and then bluntly stated your opinion with no regard for the other person’s perspective.

Even when you’ve done the hard and humbling work of empathic listening, the tone of your response will either keep the conversation going or shut it down completely.  Here’s the tricky part: you have to be sensitive to word choice and unintended offenses.  It has become increasingly popular to say, “Well, this world has just gotten too worried about being PC.”  And while that may or may not be the case, if you truly desire to engage in respectful debate with any sort of effectiveness, you have to consider how your message will be received through the unique lens of the person/people with whom you are talking.

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So, is this list exhaustive?  No.

Will this list assuredly lead to fruitful debate?  Unfortunately, not always.

But my hope is that it at least provides a starting place to reconsider how it is we communicate with one another in a time when it seems like everything we say is being judged and used against us in the court of public opinion. 

It’s time to show the world that there are people who want to have fruitful conversations about meaningful topics, and there are ways to do it well.

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