There’s nothing like a crisis to spice up a family dinner, and this year has delivered a typhoon of crises. We’ve lived, and argued, through an unprecedented bushfire season, an unprecedented pandemic and global race protests at, yes, an unprecedented scale.
Politically speaking, these are rancorous times. Polarisation is at an all-time high and the impacts within our homes and families are significant. On the heels of each world-shifting headline, a series of tense arguments, flying tempers and buried heads have ensued in households across the country. But these conversations are too delicate to settle with a screaming match and too important to sweep under the rug.
As citizens of the world, as players in democracy, we have something of an obligation to act upon our values rather than our basest instincts. It’s thankless to get into Facebook arguments and often painful to enter into dinner table ones, but our fight or flight modes don’t do justice to the difficult conversations we desperately need to have.
After all, it’s not “just politics”. It’s about saying this is who I am and this is what I care about. Political views are about how you think other people should be treated. They are a reflection of your values and morals and how you put those morals into practice, even in situations that don’t directly impact you.
Tempting as it is to bury angry uncle Tony in the mashed potato and be done with it, silence in the face of bigotry or hate is not kind; it simply shifts the emotional burden to another person. Sometimes, living your politics means challenging those around you, even if they’re family.
Our social networks have become noxious echo chambers, pulsing with one-sided, and increasingly extreme, rhetoric. It’s hardly surprising we’re at a loss of how to behave when we encounter opinions beyond our own bubbles, especially when they’re held by someone we’re actually related to. That we’re intrinsically tied to someone who thinks differently from us is at total odds with the carefully curated landscape of validation we build online.
That disbelief easily spirals into angry judgement. Tempers flare and plates of chicken parmy grow cold in awkward silence. But these encounters should not be about sharpening our rhetorical knives. Approached with genuine curiosity, there is so much value in engaging with someone beyond your own bubble. These conversations are an opportunity to inspect our own opinions and consider other points of view.
If growth is truly the objective, then, crucially, we must recognise the difference between debate and dialogue. Debate is about persuasion, dialogue about curiosity. We have a much better shot at meaningful conversation if we view it as a process of learning rather than a chance to win over the other side.
When we talk about politics, we are often our most righteous, sanctimonious even, selves. But when we talk about love or fear or life, we are gloriously human in our complexity. By its nature, debate reduces us to one hellbent, shouting side; too often we lose nuance and those sweet spot shades of grey. We set out to “win” an argument and unravel all sense of dignified intricacy to get there.
The internet, with its ensnaring clickholes of judgement, has certainly played its part in the demise of grounded conversation. There’s little room for nuance in the passages of vitriol so often spouted online. No matter the content, you can be sure to find piles of comment filth lurking below, levying uninhibited hatred against people sitting on the opposite side of the fence. Oh how easy it is to demonise the other side when you exist in a homogenous bubble, but this is no training ground for constructive conversation or effective listening.
Having family members who think differently from you doesn’t negate your own views, and allowing space for their opinions doesn’t compromise your morals. After all, unless you encounter differences of opinion, how can you think new things? If our own views can’t withstand a little opposition, perhaps they’re not as sound as we would like to think.
Don’t approach a conversation like a 19th-century missionary determined to radically change your opponent’s mind. This will inevitably lead to disappointment and frustration. Conversations don’t need winners and losers and you’re unlikely to change someone’s mind after a single dialogue. Make it your aim to learn something new; neither party has to shift, but both should leave with a little more understanding.
Ask open-ended questions
Non-threatening, open-ended questions are a great way to invite the other side to discuss an issue without fear of judgement. People will be decidedly less defensive if they feel you have created a safe space for them to speak.
Deepen the conversation with follow-up, non-judgemental “why” questions. By exploring why the other side has arrived at a certain conclusion or their reasoning behind an opinion, you will be better equipped to understand their point of view as an evolution of thought rather than a standalone opinion.
Giving the other side this space to speak and reason may bring up inconsistencies in their argument and provide talking points for later on, but fully explore the other person’s perspective before jumping into your own.
Don’t just wait your turn to speak — listen
An important ingredient for any successful conversation is listening — not listening to respond, but listening to understand. If we can’t grant this respect to the other side, we cannot expect to see it reciprocated. When the other person has finished speaking, summarise their argument to make them feel heard and ensure you have understood correctly.
Agree where you can
If you want to influence someone’s views, build an alliance first by agreeing where you can. Rebuttals rarely change minds, but showing people that you’re taking their perspective seriously and can see both sides of the issue will increase the chances of them listening to you too. Yes, it can be difficult to agree on specific policies or individuals, but facts, values and goals offer plenty of scope for common ground.
Step away if things get overheated
Raging at people across the political spectrum will do nothing to disrupt the cycle of hate. Emotion drives our political opinions far more than we might like to admit, but it is also the antidote to productive conversation. Yes, our politics are an extension of who we are, but we must differentiate between attacks on our beliefs and attacks on ourselves.
If a conversation becomes emotionally charged, take a pause or step away. Your agitation will only lead to distress and no good comes from hurtling abuse to and fro.
Rely on personal storytelling
Personal narratives invite empathy and connection — two pillars of meaningful conversation. If angry uncle Tony tends to, say, doubt the existence of racial bias, try to recall a time when you might have been less informed and show how your views on the topic have evolved over time as evidence has emerged. When you expose common ground, people will be more open to examining the evidence before them in a more rational way.
If we can’t talk to our families about the things that divide us, you’ve got to wonder where we can, but that doesn’t mean being open to difficult conversations 24/7. Especially if you’re living with family members who regularly take an opposite stance, be sure to set boundaries around how often you’re willing to engage in this type of conversation. It’s okay to say, “I’m not in the mindset to discuss difficult issues tonight.”
Charlie Hale is an English-born journalist based in Sydney, where she writes about a plethora of things women care about — from pasta to politics and everything between. Charlie is also the deputy editor of WILD, WellBeing and EatWell magazines.