Throughout 2020 I have consulted with countless clients about how to manage conflict with important people in their lives, particularly family. The topics of disagreement span the gamut across political and racial lines, to beliefs about what acceptable social justice activities might look like, to the scientific validity of COVID. It’s no wonder that people feel conflicted and downright baffled when they discover they’re not on the same page as a friend, family member or colleague.
Divisive polarization of thought, ideals, ethics, morals and interpretation can be rampant and widely vary in perspective. Disagreements that result can be very painful, placing siblings, parents, children, friends, family and colleagues at odds. How can we handle sensitive topics without causing rifts in our important relationships and remain unified at the conclusion of a discussion? Consider the following tactics and strategies to successfully navigate contentious topics and conversations:
Remember that “different” isn’t necessarily “wrong”
Although no one can deny that there have been a plethora of events and circumstances that have occurred in 2020. What differs most often is the opinion and perspective as to the severity, significance and relevance of each circumstance and the impact each will have personally and collectively now and for years to come. Arguments about these issues often become heated and quickly emotionally charged.
Can family members disagree and have conflicting perspectives on issues without mortally damaging relationships? YES! Believe it or not, it’s entirely possible for people to have diametrically opposed views, and for views to be “right.” Everyone is entitled to their feelings and beliefs as they interpret information. Although it is often a challenge, people need to allow space for spouses, colleagues and others to see things differently than they do. Remember: different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong!
Beware of Pandora’s box
One challenging aspect of many divisive issues is that they are not “neat and tidy.” Take politics, for example. Perspectives and beliefs rarely stay confined within the bounds of party lines. Rather these ideas often extend to a person’s belief about race, gender, economics, parity in healthcare, retirement planning—the list goes on and on. When a conflict about one issue arises it can open the proverbial “Pandora’s box” and then open the floor for other divisive perspectives that can then make for an even more heated exchange. When having debates, conversations or disagreements about divisive perspectives make an effort to stay on the topic at hand rather than expanding the scope to other issues. Although other topics may have relevance if they lead down an even more negative exchange it is often best to hold these topics for later. The discussion of topics with conflicting views does not have to leave relationships irreparably damaged if the discussion occurs with respect and tolerance.
Cease the urge to try to “convince”
It’s important to not engage in strategies to try to convince others that they’re perspective or belief is “wrong” or flawed and that your perspective is “right” and accurate.. The exercise of attempting to do so is a waste of time, energy, and emotional resources and has the potential to be hurtful and damaging. While you might be able to present facts and figures to support your position this approach is often not conducive to an exchange where both people feel heard. Particularly now, when information on all platforms of communication is routinely doubted or accused of bias, a personal back story for why you hold the belief is much more understandable to someone with a contrary belief. When someone sees your position being supported by something you know to be true, as opposed to you trying to convince them it’s true, often changes the tone and response to an otherwise contentious discussion.
Tact and diplomacy are a must
Over years of working with human communication it has become evident that most times when our emotions are received in advance of the message being presented then the message is generally lost in translation. If there is a particularly contentious subject being discussed, and you feel emotion taking over your part of the conversation it is often best to excuse yourself to take a breather (excusing one’s self to visit the restroom is often effective!). Again, very rarely is logic found when emotion is most prominent in conversation!
Once you have regained composure you can then decide whether to return to the discussion or pivot focus to another person to start a different conversation or engage in another activity. If you do choose to return to the discussion consider the following tactics to hear, and to have your viewpoint heard, by others:
Open your mind. Open your mind to what the other person is saying. If your mind is so busy shaping what you are going to say next then you really are not listening to what is being said. Most people have reasons that have shaped their beliefs. By honestly listening you can learn what those are.
Use humor wisely. It can be a lifesaver to inject a little levity into the discussion but reject snarky or sarcastic humor. Many situations have some inherent humor that, if recognized, can relax the mood.
Stay calm. If you can’t keep your voice down and your tone civil, it’s time to exit the conversation. Also, if alcohol is present find another time and place for the discussion. Alcohol-fueled debates have a lethal ability to damage relationships.
Control your body language. Some experts say that body language accounts for at least half of all communication. Be aware your body language may say you are not listening even if your words say you are.
Gracefully exit without dismissal. When divisive conversations end with “We’ll just have to agree to disagree” they can be seen as dismissive especially if the other person feels their explanation or viewpoint has been cut short without having their say. Consider another approach. Try something like: “Let’s talk about something else and come back to this at another time.”
The importance of tolerance. Just because someone has a different viewpoint than you have doesn’t mean they are morally flawed. The best way forward is to be tolerant and respectful of each other’s views. Instead focus on broad topics that can be mutually agreed upon and approach the discussion with genuine desire to understand the other perspective.
Stability is key
At a time when our world is medically, financially, socially, and psychologically chaotic, it is also a time to promote civility and security in our relationships with friends and family. Divisive perspectives do not have to leave relationships irreparably damaged if discussion occurs with respect and tolerance. May we all practice tolerance, grace and respect so that we may emerge relatively unscathed during times of conflict and discord.
About the author
For more than 20 years, Dr. Lisa Webb (“Dr. Lisa”) has been pushing the envelope beyond conventional consulting to incorporate business strategy with human behavior for C-level executives to realize equivalent success at home as in the boardroom. Her expertise bridges mind health and work effectiveness domains. Utilizing integrated mind and body wellness approaches she assists clients to live their best and healthiest life. As a relationship advisor, entrepreneur and female licensed doctoral level clinical psychologist she advises corporate executives and their partners in the pursuit of more successful relationships.
Several areas of recent emphasis in Dr. Lisa’s consultation include: the stress-body connection and impact of both burnout and stress upon executives personal and professional lives; Mom guilt and ways to effectively balance multiple work and home demands with grace; family concerns, particularly when one or both partners are emotionally disconnected and immersed in their work life; fertility, prenatal and postpartum and anxiety in corporate women; and the impact of COVID on work and health (emotional and physical) across the lifespan.
You can read more about Dr. Lisa’s integrated health practice at www.bodymindtn.com and her relationship consultation with executives at https://executiverelationshipadvisor.com/. You may also find her book, The Executive Marriage Solution: transforming Boardroom Success into Bedroom Bliss at Amazon.com: https://tinyurl.com/executive-marriage-solution