Does thinking about going home for the holidays leave you feeling anxious, mentally preparing yourself for conversations you wish you didn’t have to have? You may feel right at home with your friends in the city, living in a liberal bubble, agreeing on raising the minimum wage and pro-choice legislation. But if you weren’t raised this way, going home and talking to family members about your newfound political ideals can be a daunting, and emotionally draining.
What can you do when friends’ or family’s words hurt or leave you feeling vulnerable? Do you want to be right, or effective? Can you be both? Here are some tips from Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education at the University of Minnesota, to learn how to navigate those difficult conversations with dignity and respect. Eichele was our speaker for our October Feminist Friday event on the Art of Arguing.
Decide on your goal
When communicating, main goals are to inform, persuade, or entertain, Eichele says. And when you are arguing, your goal will be to inform or persuade. Understand that it is not your opponents job to agree with you, Eichele says. Accept that you don’t know everything, and your opponent is also trying to persuade you, and maybe will even give you valid points. “I know that I don’t know everything, but I know I know how to read, and ask questions, and learn,” Eichele says regarding keeping an open mind during the argument.
Understand your audience
Who is your audience and what are their needs? It is important to know where you stand with the person you are arguing. Know where they lie on the political spectrum, and certain issues that are important to them.
Eichele says to “use their logic.” Do they respond to facts and figures? Stories? Feelings? Use statements they find valuable to persuade them. You can usually tell what they value by what they are arguing with themselves. Are they throwing facts and figures at you? Throw them back. If you don’t know how you should argue with them, a good technique is to simply ask directly. Say something like, “What would it take to change your mind on this issue?” If they say that nothing would change their mind, then save your breath, it isn’t worth it.
Play their game
Similar to “using their logic”, make your opponent feel challenged in a way they are familiar with. This means not only using similar types of information, but also similar argument techniques and tactics. Eichele gives you an example: “If someone is telling you that you are ‘playing the women card,’ come back with something like: ‘Yeah, well my playing the women card means that you’re playing the privileged card. You have to play the card you’re dealt. We both know how card games work, the deck is always stacked in the benefit of the house. So I agree, let’s play cards.’ Their mouth will be hanging open.”
Listen actively and validate
In order to argue productively, you must learn to listen to the other person’s arguments as well. Listen to exactly what they are saying, and validate their statements, Eichele suggests. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to agree. Statements such as “I can see where you are coming from” or “I didn’t know that before” are good starting points for your counterarguments.
“Sometimes we just listen to refute, to argue back, instead of actually listening to their argument,” Eichele says. Her recommended sequence is: listen, affirm, respond, and add. Listen to what they say, validate them, give your counterargument, and add another statement. By actively listening you are opening your mind to the other person’s beliefs and through this you can grow stronger in your own argument.
Call “in” not call “out”
In the world of social justice activism, a major challenge is the policing of language and making sure that you are using politically correct, inclusive language. An important thing to remember is that just because someone says something that sounds racist or racially charged, that does not make them a racist themselves. Calling them out on that can trigger defensiveness and hostility. Instead of telling people they can’t use certain words, suggest different words as a substitute. For example, use to word “wild” instead of “crazy” to destigmatize and validate real mental illnesses.
If you are trying to avoid an argument, sometimes it is okay to play dumb. That’s the view of Emma Saks, a student worker at the University of Minnesota Women’s Center. She suggests if you are trying to avoid an argument, sometimes it is works to pretend you are ignorant. If someone tells a joke or says a statement that is racist, sexist, transphobic, etc., a technique Saks uses is to pretend like you don’t get what they are saying. “It makes it so they have to explain the joke or slur that they are saying, and then they question themselves when you don’t understand,” says Saks.
Saks says when she has done this with people they have been uncomfortable, having to explain their statement, causing them to second-guess it. This way they have to internally think about it themselves, instead of you debating with them. And the fact that you don’t understand what they believe to be culturally understood makes them question their own motives and see what is wrong with the statement.
Don’t teach unless you want to
It is important to know that you don’t have to be an educator unless you want to be. Bronwyn Miller, programs assistant at the University of Minnesota Women’s Center, has struggled with feeling like she has to educate people since she started getting involved with social justice activism.
“You don’t owe anyone your education. You got this way, you formed these opinions, through discussion, active listening, reading. And you cannot divulge that all in one conversation,” Miller says. She says you can play different roles in different settings, and sometimes when you’re with family, the best role to play is not social justice warrior. If the conversation comes up and you don’t want to talk about it, politely tell them that, and ask for respect. Say something like “I have knowledge on this topic, and I have experiences, I’m not going to go into that now because I know where it will lead, and I don’t want to turn this into an argument.”
In American society, our political views exist almost exclusively on a binary. Increasingly polarized parties make it hard to sway someone’s views. It is almost a rarity to change someone’s mind today. Even well thought out, fact-based arguments can leave people turning away or checking your stats. How little comes out of arguing and how much work goes into it is a deterrent for some. It is okay if you want to save the energy and go out and do the actual work, Eichele says. Everyone has a different role, and remember your level of involvement is completely up to you.