Who Wants to Carve the Tension? Conversation, Confrontation and Compassion - New Canadian Media
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Who Wants to Carve the Tension? Conversation, Confrontation and Compassion

Marcus Medford shares his advice on how to navigate difficult but topical conversations with loved ones this holiday season.

There are few things better than sharing a meal with the people you love around the holidays. And there are few things that can ruin a gathering faster than a heated discussion about politics. 

Keeping controversial topics off the menu is a way to avoid judgement, conflicts and tense conversations. But with the year we’ve had, having tough conversations with loved ones and strangers can be unhelpful and potentially dangerous. This year has also, though, made it painfully obvious that the political is indeed personal

Increasing polarization in politics means that no matter what you believe, chances are you view your political opponents not only as incorrect but morally repugnant. There’s a tendency to attack the character and intelligence of people you disagree with rather than challenging their beliefs. For instance, visiting people for the holidays. 

There are people choosing to stay home on the advice of politicians and public health officials to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading. And those who believe the government is infringing their personal freedoms or blowing the pandemic out of proportion and are choosing to congregate. People following public health guidelines are called mindless sheep by their detractors, people adopting a libertarian approach are called selfish, dangerous — or worse. No matter where you stand on an issue, it’s likely someone in your family or friend group disagrees. You could cut those people out of your life but is that the best solution?

When Compassion Meets Conversation

Being able to talk to someone about your differences in opinion is healthier than harbouring animosity towards them or people who share their beliefs. It’s all too easy to get lost in feedback loops or echo chambers and avoid conversations that challenge our beliefs. If you can safely have these conversations in person, even better. People are crueller online than they’d ever dare to be in person, plus face-to-face meetings allow people to read each other’s body language. And people can’t leave you unread in real-life. 

Uncomfortable conversations are even more difficult with family dynamics factored in. Demographics like age, gender, income, language proficiency, and immigration status influence the power balance in a family which can make having these conversations even more challenging. Everyone’s moulded by their experiences, so it’s understandable that people with different experiences will have different perspectives. It’s important to remember this and to practice patience with the people you love but don’t discount or invalidate your own perspective or feelings.

Discussions about subjects considered taboo in certain cultures add another obstacle to navigate when approaching difficult conversations. It can help to enlist the guidance of someone else if you have an especially delicate situation. For example, you might seek out someone who shares your ethnicity who’s had a similar experience. Find out what went well and what didn’t, see if you can get any suggestions but know that every situation is unique. You could also talk to an intermediary who knows both of you about how to best engage the conversation.

Listen more, talk less 

Approach the conversation with compassion; your goal should be to understand the other person and problem solving, not proving that you’re right.  If you enter the conversation with that intention, you’re likely to create a wedge between you and your loved one and cause them to dig their heels in even deeper. Make it clear that you’re coming to the conversation from a place of concern, for the person and your relationship, not a place of anger. 

No one wants to be told that they’re wrong or have their ego bruised, so, when people scold others for their beliefs, the scolded naturally get defensive. You can’t force someone to adopt your opinion so that shouldn’t be your objective. Genuinely try to understand where the other person is coming from. It might be helpful to do some research to get a more comprehensive view of the other side’s argument. 

Don’t do it to prepare rebuttals, do it so you’re knowledgeable about all the relevant details. 

It’s also a good idea to get specific information to support your point. Try to relay this information without being patronizing or lecturing your loved one. Understanding exactly what the other person believes is an important step in dismantling misinformation and clearing up misunderstandings. Dr. Sajjad Fazel, a public health researcher at the University of Calgary, said “Misinformation isn’t just lies, it’s a mix of truth and lies mixed up together,” in an interview with the CBC. Misinformation and false conclusions drawn from facts are especially relevant amidst the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and rumours about “The Great Reset.

Tips for Tough Conversations

Hearing “we need to talk,” can be anxiety-inducing but it can be useful for broaching uncomfortable conversations. Clearly establishing that you want to talk to someone about something can help them mentally prepare. Setting a time and a date can help the conversation feel less like an ambush, which should lead to a more receptive audience. 

Using “I” statements instead of “you” statements will make the conversation feel less confrontational and accusatory. It shifts the focus away from what the other person’s done or believes and turns it to how those things impact you. And no one can argue what you’re feeling.

Instead of rehearsing what you want to say, take some time practising mindfulness, deep breathing, or grounding techniques. These techniques will allow you to acknowledge your emotions, focus on the present and stay calm.

This year’s been a barrage of bad news and the pandemic’s exposed flaws in the inner workings of our society. We’ve heard conversations about important policy issues like policing, healthcare and affordable housing, and their potentially devastating outcomes. Democracy should be about fighting to find the best solutions but we’re too busy fighting each other. Maybe if we spent more time cooperating than we do vilifying each other, we’d have less to fight about.

Marcus is a poet, editor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. He currently works with New Canadian Media as an Editor and as a Freelance Writer for ByBlacks.com, The Edge: A Leader's Magazine and The Soapbox Press.

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