Two weeks after George Floyd was murdered, we were on our way to a family gathering in northern Michigan. My daughter Emily was quizzing us on how to respond to any racist comments that might be said. My wife was nervous. She loathes conflict and simply wanted to enjoy time with extended family. As it turned out, it was a pleasant gathering with no discussion of the events occurring in the broader world.
As many of us prepare to be with family over the holidays, navigating conversations about politics and sensitive issues is a very real challenge. We can try to avoid it but these topics seem to creep into nearly every topic of discussion. Our political ideas are no longer simply our opinions. They’re seen as core to our identity. Parents wonder how their kids have grown up to be so ignorant. Kids wonder how their mom could have married someone so racist. Some of us may have reason to cut off family altogether because they’re just too toxic or abusive. But I’m hopeful that most of us can find a way to love each other, accept our different perspectives, and even learn from them.
Before we dig into strategies, a word of caution. First, don’t go into these conversations attempting to convince your family to see things your way. Research repeatedly shows that preaching at someone about their “flawed” views related to gender equality, Jan 6, or Critical Race Theory is proven to strengthen their viewpoint. They become more entrenched, emboldened, and dogmatic about what they believe.
Second, be mindful that not everyone in your family wants to engage in this kind of discussion. The peacemaking personalities will feel uneasy, introverts may find it exhausting, and some may be silently watching as family members debate whether their identity and freedoms are legitimate. Avoid having these conversations at the dinner table where no one can comfortably opt-out and set some parameters to ensure it’s a productive conversation.
With those cautions in mind, here are three culturally intelligent phrases you can use to guide conversation about divisive issues with family:
“I want to make sure I understand…”
The first step is to listen. Don’t assume your sister is totally ignorant about higher taxes or reproductive rights and beware of thinking you know what “people like her” think. Use perspective-taking, a seminal skill of cultural intelligence, to genuinely understand her perspective.
There are a couple reasons why saying, “I want to make sure I understand” is important. First, nearly any perspective makes sense if you take the time to genuinely understand it. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree with it. But there are almost always some reasonable explanations for why someone holds the perspective they have. Most of what we’ve been told about the other side is skewed.
Second, taking the time to genuinely listen positions the dialogue respectfully. You’re showing that you value your family member enough to give them your attention and hear them.
After you’ve heard their perspective, try paraphrasing it back to them. Seth Freeman, a leading expert on conflict resolution from Columbia University, says your goal is to explain their perspective so well that they say, “Exactly! I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Once you’ve accurately paraphrased their perspective, you might ask, “Would you be open to considering a different perspective?” Hopefully they will actively listen to hear your position. If they don’t, there’s little point in talking further about the issue. But at least you’ve done your part to genuinely understand and doing so may help you refine your own thinking about the issue and conversations with others.
“I share that concern…”
Next, look for something where you can agree. This is a basic tenet of culturally intelligent negotiation. You need to find some sort of shared concern or problem that you’re both motivated to address.
Let’s say you have vehemently different views on whether law enforcement is systemically racist. Someone who is opposed to the “Black Lives Matter” movement is unlikely to say, “You’re right. We should just defund the police.” And someone who believes law enforcement is systematically racist is unlikely to say, “You’re right. People need to just do what they’re told when they’re pulled over.” But if you work hard enough, you can almost always find some common ground. You might say, “I share your concern that communities need to respect the law.” Or “I share your concern that everyone should be treated as innocent until proven guilty.” This helps shift the conversation toward something you’re both concerned about.
Some DEI experts will challenge this approach. They’re rightfully skeptical of genteel conversations about issues of injustice and discrimination. For me, identifying a shared concern isn’t about making people comfortable nor is it about lowering the bar so far that we build common ground from something meaningless. Instead, this approach draws from a large body of research on culturally intelligent diplomacy and negotiation where finding a shared problem is proven to be an essential part of solving challenges together. Little is gained by shouting across the table, “You’re so racist!”
If all else fails, say something like, “I agree this is a complicated issue.” Or “You’ve always taught me to care about the underdog. I love that about you.” Finding a shared concern reframes the conversation.
“I wonder how we would…”
This third phrase is the most critical. It moves the conversation from understanding and bridge-building to problem solving. You might say something like, “I wonder how we can ensure that the white working class and people of color aren’t pitted against each other.”
Many of the culturally intelligent individuals I interviewed for Digital, Diverse & Divided approach polarizing conversations using an approach therapists describe as “motivational interviewing.” Instead of telling people what to do, they ask a series of questions to draw out the individual’s motivational drivers with a focus on how to change things.
Ask: “What do you want to see change? What can people like you and me do about this? How could people like us work together to….(refer back to your shared concern?).” If they resort to repeating sound bites from media personalities and politicians, you might say, “But they don’t really care about you and me. So what can we do about this?”
Make regular use of phrases like,
- “Tell me more.”
- “Is there any chance you’re wrong?”
- “What’s something you would agree to?”
- “But how would you change this?”
Some of these difficult conversations will end at an impasse—either because your family member is closed or because your perspectives are too far apart to get at any useful solutions together. We need to know when to opt out. But this kind of culturally intelligent dialogue is more likely to keep the relationship in-tact and helps everyone better appreciate the nuance and complexity of the issue.
Too many families have been divided because of hateful things pushed by media personalities and politicians. If living through a global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need each other more than ever. Our differences can be the ideal catalyst for solving the biggest challenges facing us.
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