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How to Have Productive Conversations on Hot Topics in 2022

As you know, February is Black History Month. While it's meant to be a month to celebrate the achievements of African Americans throughout history, the month comes preloaded with all kinds of emotions across the spectrum. Some appreciate it as a time to celebrate these historic achievements. Others view the month as an opportunity to highlight all the improvements that still need to be made when it comes to equality. Some appreciate the chance to highlight Black Americans. Others view a month dedicated to the history of one race in the country as nothing more than one more thing to divide us.

I like to look for different approaches to take during Black History Month. It's not that I don't believe it's important to acknowledge the achievements of fellow Black Americans in history, but I also acknowledge that the way it's done is not always in the right spirit. So instead, I want to encourage you to embrace this month as a chance to learn how to appreciate and learn from the different perspectives around you.

Understanding different perspectives

Several years ago, I wrote a blog called How Our Perceptions Shape Diversity and Inclusion. Feel free to go back and read the full article through the link above, but I'll also give you a summary:

Remember the gray and teal vs pink and white shoe debate? Some people see the shoe as one set of colors and others see it differently. You can fight and argue about it, but you're not going to convince someone who sees the shoe as gray and teal to believe that it's pink and white. They know what they're seeing and it's as simple as that.

How can two people see the same shoe differently? Their perceptions are different.

We can apply this same concept to any hotly debated topic like Critical Race Theory, politics, climate change, or pretty much anything related to Covid. Are there facts around these topics? Of course. But the shoe has an actual color as well and that doesn't stop people from seeing it in different ways.

The first step in learning how to be productive in any conversation is learning to acknowledge and accept that people have different perspectives shaped by their personal experiences and perceptions. Once you reach this point of acceptance, the next steps can help you begin having productive conversations instead of digging your feet in and debating.

Learning to have productive conversations

Intentionality is key to having productive conversations. It will require you to be purposeful in what you say, how you say it, and what you choose to focus on. The following tips can help.

Educate yourself

I was recently asked to share my opinions on Critical Race Theory and I'll be honest with you—I wasn't really sure what my opinion was. I had heard snippets of information from people around the topic, but I hadn't taken the time to dive into studying the topic myself. While I could have easily spouted off and recycled the information I had heard from others, that wasn't necessarily my opinion.

I want to challenge you to educate yourself on topics that you're going to be in discussion about. If you haven't personally researched a topic or don’t have personal experience with it, it might be best to leave your voice out of the conversation until you have educated yourself.

When I refer to "educating yourself", I don't mean go out and take a college-level course on the topic. Do a little research. Read articles from people on differing sides of the conversation with different viewpoints. Don't just hit CNN. Don't just hit Fox News. Look outside of news sources to see what others, including professionals in the area, are saying.

Share facts, not opinions

If we're honest, we would all have to admit this is an area of struggle during hotly debated conversations. It's very easy to jump over that line from debating facts to letting opinions and feelings take over. It's a slippery slope because hot-button issues are always the ones that get our emotions going.

But the second you are talking with someone who disagrees with you and you shift from fact to opinion, you're going to lose them. Unless you're asked for your opinion on the topic, keep it to yourself and focus on facts. We all have our own opinions that are based on our own perspectives. You're never going to "win the argument" with your opinion, which brings me to the next point.

Stop trying to "win" the conversation

Conversations can be productive. Arguments aren't. Think about the last time you debated with someone on an issue. Chances are you walked away feeling even more rooted in the opinion you had going into the argument and the other person likely felt the same way.

In a debate, you're trying to defend your stance and convince the other person why you're right. That type of behavior does not open the door for productive conversation. All it does is cause the other person to dig in even deeper to their own opinion so they can defend it.

"Winning" the conversation would look a lot more like two people listening to one another and walking away with a greater awareness of the other's side.

Start asking questions

If you find you're in a conversation with someone who feels differently than you do on a topic, like Critical Race Theory, instead of putting your game face on, start asking questions. Here are some phrases you can try:

  • That's an interesting perspective; can you share with me why you feel that way?
  • I haven't done much research on this topic, what have you heard about it?
  • I found something different in my research, could you expand on that so I can understand what you're saying?
  • Where do you think society is going off track with this topic?
  • How do you think conversations around CRT could be improved?

Do you notice a trend with these questions? They're not about you sharing what you think or believe. You are asking questions that can give you insight into where the other person is coming from, and you can use these questions regardless of what side of the Critical Race Theory debate you are on. You're not agreeing with them; you're simply asking for more information.

Don't "take the bait"

We've all been in those conversations before. The other person is a highly-skilled button-pusher. It's almost like they've been studying you to learn just what to say to really fire you up. Don't let them.

I know that's easier said than done, but it works. Society has a horrible problem with being easily offended. People take everything that is said personally and use it to fuel their fire and anger.

Establish your boundaries prior to having these conversations

Not all conversations are productive conversations. It's wise to establish boundaries for yourself when discussing hot topics. If the conversation goes off the rails, it's okay to politely end the conversation. If the other person refuses to let you politely end it, then simply be done and walk away. You don't have to continue engaging in unhealthy conversations that are hurting your mental health and emotional wellness.

Simply say something along the lines of "I'm not comfortable in this conversation anymore. We can talk about another topic or I'm going to need to excuse myself."

Seek to understand instead of being understood

One of the best ways to turn unproductive conversations into productive ones is to focus on trying to learn and understand the other person and their point of view. Not every productive conversation is going to result in changed opinions or beliefs and we have to learn to be okay with that. If we can simply walk away with a greater understanding of what someone else thinks, it's a positive experience.

You don't have to change your opinion. They don't have to change their opinion. Use the other strategies listed above with the goal of trying to understand that person more. Learn why they feel and believe the things they do.

Learn to manage your emotions

We're all going to be in conversations where we start to feel tense and triggered. That's normal, but it doesn't mean we need to react upon those emotions. Lashing out, venting, and taking our anger out on others verbally is not appropriate. It's important to learn how to sit with your emotions and healthy ways to release difficult emotions.

When you feel your emotions overwhelming you when you're in a difficult conversation, it's best to push pause on the conversation. When we speak out of our emotions, we're more likely to say hurtful things that we don't mean, and that never results in a productive conversation.

Every productive conversation moves the needle forward

While we would all love to see immediate change in the areas that are important to us individually or to society as a whole, it doesn't work like that. Accepting this can help free you from the pressure of trying to use every conversation to bring that lasting change you want to see. You likely won't see it after one or two conversations with someone. But it's important to keep in mind that every productive conversation we have around important issues helps to move the needle forward.

Black History Month is a time to celebrate and remember those who made a difference in the past and contributed to the America we live in today. Let's use their example to continue moving the needle forward by focusing our attention on having productive conversations with those around us.

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