Negotiating Controversial Subjects in Social Settings
It’s holiday party season and it’s inevitable that controversial subjects will come up at some point in our social interactions. That’s always been the case, but perhaps more so in these times of profound polarization and change. How we deal with these potentially challenging interactions will determine whether our outcomes are positive or disastrous.
Here’s 3 quick tips I felt compelled to share based on a recent exchange I experienced:
I There’s a Time and Place for Politicized Discussion – Choose Wisely
While some conversational landmines catch us by surprise, some can be avoided with a little forethought and/or intentionality. As a general rule, it’s probably risky engaging in discussions about politics or religion at holiday get togethers.
You might think this advice doesn’t include family, but I invite you to think about any of your recent family get togethers. If you’re like most people, family is often the most fraught as old family baggage is inevitably layered on and into the discussion. This advice also applies to discussions at social events for work, community, clubs, or organizations.
Warning: This advice applies doubly if alcohol is involved.
Last night, at a holiday party for our group of local authors, the subject of political correctness for writers (and the quickly changing landscape on what this encompasses) came up in conversation. No question this was an interesting and important issue with the potential for a vigorous and engaging discussion. However, in hindsight, perhaps our holiday party was not the best forum for the discourse.
II Know When to Call Out ‘Bad Behaviour’
As you may have guessed from my cautionary tip above, the potentially exciting conversation went sideways quickly. Note that sometimes it can take a single person to fundamentally change the nature of a conversation (for the good or the bad). In this situation, one person continued to engage insensitive racial overtones and to consistently interrupt and talk over the others in the conversation.
This raised the obvious question … do I call out the behaviour or let it ride?
I love important discussions on challenging issues. It’s one of the ways we grow into the best versions of ourselves. It’s one of the fundamental premises behind my Art of Feminine Negotiation™ mission as the world is in a polarized place right now. People dig into their respective positions, and few are open to meaningful dialogue to better understand opposing perspectives. Many preach their own rhetoric without understanding other viewpoints (in our personal lives, on social media and even on the world stage).
Much of the work I do is stimulating these very types of discussions. To do that effectively, it’s necessary to ensure that everyone follows key protocols, which include listening fully to each speaker in turn without interruption. This is particularly so vis-a-vis women, as women tend to be interrupted and talked over 45% more than their male counterparts (both by men and by other women).
I suspect, in part, that’s why I felt compelled to call out the behaviour and note the interruptions as a starting point. It was challenging to move forward with any discussion when nobody could finish a sentence. I was hoping to invite more curiosity to hear other viewpoints on the broader issues (as is key, especially on issues we feel strongly about). Curiosity can move mountains.
III Know When to Walk Away
In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, ‘you’ve gotta know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run’. Curiosity did not win the day last night. Whether it was the nature of the event, the forum or external factors, our interrupter doubled down and it became impossible to engage in any real exchange.
It was time to step back from the conversation. Part of my advocacy work as a social justice attorney and specialist in conflict communications, and also in my work as a women’s empowerment coach, is working together on empowering ways to step into the fullness of our power, redefining who we choose to be and how we choose to show up. It’s important to know when that can be achieved … and when it cannot.
Don’t get sucked into a conversation that will continue to devolve. Gently redirect the conversation and park it for a more appropriate and productive time and place. Explore alternative approaches that may prove more empowering.
There’s great power in avoiding unnecessary conflict and choosing to walk away altogether where there is no value to be had, or ideally picking up the thread strategically in a more advantageous manner at a later time and place with the opportunity for forethought and preparation to increase the chances of more successful outcomes.
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