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Monday, November 2, 2015

How to Discuss A Controversial Topic Respectfully

It is highly likely that if you voiced your opinion about what occurred between the student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, SC and the School Resource Officer (SRO) last week, you were met with cheers or jeers.  Those who agreed with your viewpoint did so emphatically because, like you, they were trying to find a supporter in the midst of so much anger and judgment.  Regardless of what side you were on, there was always someone to go against you.  This topic dominated conversations at work and home.  People argued with their co-workers, families, with their friends, and with strangers.  Everyone felt passionately about what they believed, and they would not be swayed.

Such is the way we handle controversial topics about which we feel strongly.  A certain matter sparks a deep and tender place in our hearts, and we feel compelled to speak on it.  Nowadays, many take to social media to vent or voice, and they are met with swift acceptance or rejection.  Arguments and opinions go viral like a bullet train that's lost its brakes.  Even those who aren't prone to say anything in such matters step out tentatively with:  "I don't usually get involved in this kind of thing, but..." or "I've been trying not to say anything about this, but I just have to say..."

It has been interesting to watch the dynamics in how people debate their differences, and unfortunately, more often than not it's done poorly.  Here's an indication:  if at the end of the conversation the relationship is damaged or broken, then it was a poorly conducted debate.  Debates, arguments, disagreements to some degree all challenge the opinions of multiple parties.  What all parties fail to realize is that the disagreement is basically built around opinions and not always facts.  It's hard to argue facts.  They are what they are, and they're usually provable.  Opinions are subjective and can sway either way.  What makes a matter controversial is that both sides have strong points that can be accepted as truth.  But those same points can have weaknesses that diminish the strength of those points, and neither side wants to accept those weaknesses.  They continue to reiterate them with unyielding force--a force that becomes less and less respectful.

We have to learn to allow people to have their opinions, voice their opinions, and acknowledge their opinions as just that--an opinion.  In a free society like ours, we have the right to say what we feel whether other people like it or not.  But in the debate of a controversial subject, not everyone acts like this is the case.  As has been demonstrated this week, people want to shut down the other point of view because it doesn't match theirs.  Why else do people continue to argue?  To convince the opposing side(s) that their view is the right one.

It's okay to feel passionate about your beliefs.  It's okay to debate.  But if you're going to debate a topic, and I'm sure there will be many more to come, here are seven tips on how to do so with respect:

1.  Recognize that other people have the right to believe what they want, and their beliefs don't have to align with yours.
2.  Express your views; don't force them.  Just because you believe something doesn't automatically make it the standard by which everyone else should think.
3.  Avoid arguing on social media.  Too many other people can get in on it, and it feels too much like people ganging up on each other.  Also, too much can get misinterpreted in the exchange (often delayed because each party has to wait for the other to respond in writing and too many others can get involved in between.  They can change the temper of the conversation from your original intent).  Remember without inflection and the benefit of seeing a person, it is easy to misread what a person meant.  You can lose control of the conversation.
4.  Realize that when there are two sides, you both may be right.  Both sides could have a solid point.  Conversely, you also could both be wrong. 
5.  Stay open-minded.  When you close your mind off to other people's opinions because you feel yours is the only one that matters, you become shortsighted and limit your own opportunity for growth.
6.  Be respectful when disagreeing.  Argue the point.  Don't get personal.  As hard as it is to realize that the people you thought you knew have a shocking view that's contrary to yours, you don't have to get angry with them or end your relationship.  Just respectfully disagree and keep it moving.  After all, the issue probably doesn't belong to either one of you (i.e. the student and officer debacle at Spring Valley).  It's probably someone else's business, and you're both weighing in on something that doesn't directly impact either of you. 
7.  Be patient and let other people give their viewpoint.  Cutting each other off, yelling, name-calling, cursing, and ridiculing have no place in having a respectful and mature disagreement.  You don't have to agree, but you do have to be respectful in that disagreement to maintain a meaningful discussion.

Keep these points in mind the next time you find yourself on the other side of another person's perspective.  In doing so, you can preserve a relationship by acting with respect.