Ah, the holidays. A time to come together with loved ones and not-so-loved ones. Many of us dread the annual encounter with that one (or more) relative whose views clash with ours.
Today, I’m going to share with you a guiding principle that can help get us through these tough conversations.
The key to the whole shebang is something the good folks over at Vital Smarts wrote in their incredible book, Crucial Conversations. Here it is:
Keep your goal in mind.
What are you even doing in the situation in the first place? Are you there to change minds, just to keep on good terms with your parents, or ‘other’? That answer can help you decide whether you should even engage in the difficult conversation that’s being presented.
Assuming you do decide to get involved, though, the same question stands: why? What does success look like for you?
The most popular, least successful strategy
Many of us engage in these tough conversations as if our goal is to shout down the other person or to assault them with such an avalanche of indisputable logic that they will give in and admit we’re right. I don’t know about you, but I have literally never seen this work.
But that doesn’t stop people using it as a strategy. We jump quickly to either implying or saying directly that the only way the other person can possibly think what they think is that they’re lazy or naive or stupid or greedy or immoral or selfish, or…you get the picture.
We throw all our evidence and logic at the other person, liberally sprinkled with insulting phrases like, “if you cared at all about people, you would see that…”. Then they take their turn and do the same thing, ie. “you bleeding hearts never take the facts of life into account when…”
Tell me something: have you EVER changed your mind about anything, or even learned anything new of importance, based on someone insulting you? I haven’t.
In fact, if anything, it makes things worse. When you attack someone for their views, it doesn’t make them reconsider those views. It makes them dig in and recommit to them. Not only does it not bridge the gulf between viewpoints, it widens it. And it ruins your nice turkey or roast beef dinner besides.
What to do instead
So what should we be doing instead? The first thing is to go back again to our goal: what is the motivation that leads us to want to call anyone out in the first place?
Let’s take a specific example. Imagine that a relative says something racially insensitive as you pass the cranberries. You could just let it go, but you feel morally obligated to say something. Your goal in this case is probably to combat attitudes you feel are damaging, dangerous and unfair. So what do you say?
Try getting curious. See if you can find out why your relative would say what they did. Try to behave as if you honestly want to know, want to understand their perspective on it. Try not to put them on the defensive, which might be tough if they’re also used to the more adversarial style of debate. But if you can, try to get past that and honestly seek understanding.
Of course, you will probably never be on board with prejudiced views, and it might not be possible to actually change your relative’s mind about them either. But seeking to understand why they feel that way will at least give you a snowball’s chance in hell of getting them to understand yours.
Besides, if the offending viewpoint truly has no basis, isn’t it better to have it fall apart naturally when you take a closer look at it? Plus, then maybe everyone can actually enjoy their dessert.
And don’t forget, there are other people at that table. Hearing you thoughtfully and reasonably explore the subject with an open mind is far more likely to build their trust in you than watching you scream at your uncle that’s he a bigot.
So in this example, if your goal is to combat the rise of racist and damaging views, a strategy of curiosity is almost guaranteed to get you closer to it. It also gives you insight to why people hold views you’re seeking to combat, which is a new tool in your toolbox for combating those views in other ways.
Choose your battles, so you don’t make it worse
This is hard work, of course, and requires us to employ a certain amount of emotional control and maturity. It’s tough stuff, I won’t pretend it isn’t. If you would rather just shut your mouth and chew your potatoes and not wade in to the mess, I’ll be last to judge you for it. I’ve certainly made that choice myself, plenty of times.
But if you do choose to open that mouth, don’t waste your time making things worse. As the iconic Dale Carnegie once said, “you can’t win an argument”, and that’s extra true when your enjoyment of your pumpkin pie or turtle cheesecake is on the line.