Discuss Your Differences Without Indigestion This Holiday Season
By Alana Conner, Ph.D.
For the past few holiday seasons, friends and clients have asked for advice on talking with the heathens in their midst — the HilIary hounds, the Trump trolls, the NRA nuts, the snowflakes. I am well-versed in this exercise: As a White girl growing up in working-class Memphis, I spent my days in majority-Black classes taught by smart Black women, only to return home to folks who subscribed to White supremacy and gender norms straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale. And so I became very interested in learning how to discuss culture and politics with people I love but do not agree with.
Those childhood conversations led me to become a social scientist who studies how to manage cultural conflict. Applying my own and others’ research on bridging big gulfs in people’s perspectives, let me present a method called CLARIFY. The acronym stands for Check your motivation, Listen, Ask, Repeat, I-statements, Find common ground, and “Yet” mindset.
Here’s how to CLARIFY your next conversation with someone different from yourself:
Check your motivation. Why do you want to have a conversation with this person? If your intention is to change their mind, humiliate them, or show them that they are wrong, then consider avoiding the talk. It is likely to go poorly — people can smell a missionary a mile away, and they usually don’t like the scent.
Instead, approach the chat as an anthropologist trying to understand someone deeply different than you. Who is this person? Why do they think, feel, believe, value, and act they way they do? Even if you know some of these answers, give the other side a chance to share their heads and hearts. It will make them more open to hearing from your side of the aisle.
Listen carefully. Aim to understand what the speaker means and feels, not just the words they’re using. Paying close attention shows respect, which is the foundation of learning from each other.
Ask open-ended questions. Start your queries with “how” or “why” to elicit deeper answers that go beyond “yes” or “no.” Asking open-ended questions will not only help you better understand the other person’s perspective, but also demonstrate your genuine interest in exchanging information — not just winning your point. Here are some examples:
- “How does that make you feel?”
- “Why do you think you react that way?”
- “How do you reach that conclusion?”
Repeat back what the person has said, your interpretation of what they mean, and how you think they are feeling. This not only makes the person feel heard and understood, but also gives you time and space to consider what you think and feel. Some helpful prompts include:
- “So what I hear you saying is…”
- “I understand you feel…”
- “Let me make sure I understand: you believe that…”
I-statements can express your thoughts, feelings, and values without portraying them as universal truths or attacks on the other person. These “I” phrases include: I feel, I believe, I think, I have read, and I learned in school. Consider the good vs. bad responses below:
- Good: “I’ve read many scientific studies suggesting that race is a social construction, not a biological fact.” | Bad: “Science shows that race is a myth, and anyone who doesn’t believe this is an ignorant bigot.”
- Good: “When you say that women are inferior, I feel angry.” | Bad: “You are a sexist pig.”
- Good: “I have read in the Bible that people suffer because God is punishing them.” | Bad: “People suffer because God is punishing them.”
Find common ground, especially shared values, and point it out often. Try these phrases:
- “I sense we share the desire to do what is right.”
- “I appreciate your honesty.”
- “It seems we both care deeply about our children’s futures.”
- “We both seem to agree that killing people is wrong.”
“Yet” mindset: Be an optimist. You may not understand each other yet, but keep talking and listening. You are at least guaranteed to learn more about different perspectives. You are also more likely to develop empathy and a way to get along than if you never attempted this conversation.
You could just avoid discussing your differences with other people altogether. But our failures to reach out across political, gender, racial, ethnic, regional, and class divides deepen the fractures in our nation and world. This holiday season, do your part for world peace. Practice your cross-cultural conversation skills, and let bipartisanship begin in the home.