Touchy Topics: How to Engage Effectively

Touchy Topics: How to Engage Effectively

1st July 2016   |   Paige Block

As someone who grew up in the 90’s, I’ve noticed a trend in my generation’s communication skills. (Past generations, you’re not necessarily exempt either! Sorry.)

What’s the trend? Failure to actually communicate.

So often, especially when communicating through a screen, we struggle to find a balance between stating how we feel, and allowing others room to feel a different way.

Unfortunately (and this goes for everyone of all ages) we have a real issue of attacking someone right off the bat for having opinions that differ from ours rather than learning more about why they feel the way they do.

This happens especially regularly on social media.

Resist the urge to “unfriend” people on Facebook for holding certain opinions, no matter how much they upset you or differ from yours. Unless the person is attacking you personally, try not to distance yourself from them.

I promise, you can still fight for causes you’re passionate about without removing all traces of opposition. By removing them, all you’re doing is surrounding yourself solely with likeminded people. Essentially, all you’re doing is commiserating; there’s no room to broaden your perspective or to understand the side you disagree with. There’s no room for bridge-building. Don’t stick to your own little bubble and limit your worldview.

And I don’t just mean on social media. Engage with people who challenge your opinions in person too. But do so with civility.

So, what are the ingredients for productive, civil discussions?

Be Respectful, Be Patient, Be Polite

When you encounter someone with a different perspective from yours and feel moved to speak with them, remember to only approach the discussion if you’re able to remain calm throughout. People are far more likely to reciprocate patience and respect if you initiate it from the get-go. If you approach any discussion with hostility, the other will likely become defensive which results in an unproductive conversation.

Don’t use insults. Don’t be condescending.

It makes all the difference, I promise.

Ask Questions

Questions are the most important part of any conversation. How many times have you talked to someone and felt like it wasn’t going anywhere because they never asked you any questions? Questions are what keep the conversation flowing. They also demonstrate interest.

Let’s say you encounter someone who wholeheartedly supports the idea of ripping out the tenth page of every book they come across. You, a book lover, vehemently disagree. Instead of charging at this person with reasons why they’re a horrible book-destroying moron, ask a thoughtful question. Try to understand them.

“Hi, I noticed you like to rip the tenth page out of every book. I’ve never really understood this, would you mind explaining?”

People like to talk about themselves (most of the time anyway). People like to feel understood and know that their feelings or opinions are worth listening to. If you enter a discussion with genuine interest and maintain patience, you’re more likely to have a rewarding experience. So ask thoughtful questions. Make the objective be about learning something or understanding someone else, rather than making it about correcting them or trying to get them to adopt your opinions.

Actually Listen

If you’re going to engage in a touchy discussion with someone, actively listen (remember that from grade school??? Anyone?)

Don’t just keep an eye out for points to argue with. Hear them out.

Too many of us struggle to listen in conversation. So much of our attention is focused on what we want to say next rather than staying present. Doing this is a disservice to you and defeats the purpose of talking with someone.

If all you care about is voicing yourself, you’re better off talking to your reflection. If you actually listen, you give yourself the opportunity to learn something and prove to the other person that you genuinely care.

Make Arguments by Asking “Agree/Disagree” Questions

Let’s say you’ve been talking to someone about whether dogs or cats would make better therapists. You think dogs are the way to go, but the other person says cats, hands down. You’ve started the discussion by asking why this person feels that a dog would make a poor therapist and they’ve responded by saying that, for one, dogs bark too loud. This is your chance to make an argument while still keeping the discussion going.

“Hmm, fair enough. I can see how that might be unsettling for a client. But wouldn’t you agree that most dogs have a tendency to get along with everyone, enabling them to build strong, lasting relationships?”

They may not agree, but by asking an “agree/disagree” question, you’ve put an argument out there for their consideration and you’ve given them another opportunity to take the floor. This will make them feel that their input is appreciated and valued.

Side note: you don’t have to phrase the question using the words “agree” or “disagree”.
Some other options:
“What are your thoughts on ____”
“Would you consider _____”
“If ____ was different, would it change how you feel?”

And so on.

You want to avoid agitating or attacking. Make sure your tone is genuine. It’s also a good idea to validate their argument before making yours (i.e., “Hmm. Fair enough, I can see how _____ would be _____”). This shows you’re listening and understand what they’re trying to say. It shows you’re capable of keeping an open mind, (which you should always try to have) which will encourage them to do the same.

Accept That Some People Will Never Agree With You

If you’re arriving at the end of the discussion and you still don’t see eye-to-eye (you most likely won’t, not completely anyway) you have to learn to be okay with it.

Some people see things differently.
Some things take time to evolve.
It’s okay to agree to disagree and part ways respectfully. It doesn’t make the conversation any less productive. Remember, your goal is to learn and understand, not to correct. People don’t like things pushed on them. Accept it. They’re entitled to how they feel, no matter how horrible you might believe them to be, just as you’re entitled to how you feel.

Why’s it Important to Learn How to Have These Discussions?

The universe isn’t going shield you from people who disagree with you. You will always encounter them.

In the working world and in your every day life, you’ll always be around someone who sees the world differently than you do in one way or another. Having the ability to hold an engaging, respectful conversation with anyone you come across is invaluable. If you can demonstrate this at work, it shows that you have interpersonal skills, listening skills, teamwork, passion and curiosity. Not to mention an open mind. It will help you become better rounded and it will give you an opportunity to learn something new while possibly reinforcing your beliefs in a meaningful way. Yes, sometimes it’s a little challenging, and you’ll have to learn how to take a step back and breathe before approaching the conversation again. Sometimes there will be conversations that are okay to walk away from. If you know you can’t stay respectful and open, or if the other person isn’t able to offer you the same courtesies, it’s okay to politely walk away.

From personal experience, I’ve been able to have very rewarding, productive conversations on difficult topics with people who felt very differently than I did. I’ve had people tell me how much they admire my ability to keep the peace during a conversation that easily tends to turn hostile, or thank me for engaging, civil discussion. It really makes a difference.

Tags: In Work

Paige Block US Content Writer at Hashtag CV
Paige Block | US Content Writer @ Hashtag CV

Paige is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri where she got her degree in English. She is going through the job search process just like you and writing about her findings as she goes. When she’s not blogging about the working world, she’s hanging out with her niece and daydreaming about travel.


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