As members of the Honors College, one of our most important values is to encourage discussion despite difference in opinion. However, disagreements can be more than just philosophical differences and can have real life consequences. There is a lot of controversy over COVID-19-related topics, including the best ways to protect oneself, when social distancing is necessary, the effect of masks and so on. It can be hard to discuss such things with the people who are important to you if they disagree on any of these subjects, especially if you feel their actions are putting you and others at risk.

“Because of our need for acceptance, it can be hard to confront someone about a touchy or uncomfortable topic,” said an article from Medium. There are many reasons why it can be difficult to face confrontation, including fear of rejection or fear of hurting their feelings. But difficult conversations about important topics, such as COVID, are important for individual growth.

Many experts have tried to tackle this issue of tough conversations and have given advice on how to handle them. Examples of some of those experts include Albert Bernstein, a clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience, JP Pawliw-Fry and Bill Benjamin from the Institute for Health and Human Potential and Hannah Lee from the faculty of the psychology department at Indiana University. Here are several basic points that they suggest for handling one of these tough conversations.

Never assume ill intent, or that they are stupid

Going into the conversation assuming negatively ruins any chance of coming to an understanding. This creates prejudice from the beginning, and having this mindset when trying to talk to them will likely not result in any progress.

“For example, when people see a speeding car passing their own car, a common reaction is perceiving the driver to be a “moron,” “stupid” or “reckless” rather than thinking the person is in some emergent situation causing the driving behavior,” Lee said.

So if we were to apply this logic to, for example, someone noticing another not wearing a mask in public, their immediate reaction is probably going to be to perceive the entire person as bad, without considering understandable reasons for their actions. For example, maybe the person simply forgot the mask this one time on accident, or maybe they have a preexisting condition that prevents them from being able to wear it consistently.

“When you believe someone to be a bad person, you are alert, anxious and even angry. In this state, your approach may not come out nicely,” Lee said.

State positive intention at the beginning

Starting with a statement of positive intent, as well as vulnerability, will put the other person at ease. They will be more likely to understand that the point of the conversation is meant to be mutually beneficial instead of an attack, according to Pawliw-Fry and Benjamin. 

“An example could be: ‘I have something to talk to you about, but I need to tell you that I am feeling anxious about having it because I care what you think.  The other reason for my anxiety is that I really value our friendship and I want you to be safe and healthy.’ By stating a positive intention for your conversations and starting with some vulnerability, you can help mitigate the person’s emotional defenses, allowing their cognitive brain to hear and process what you are saying,” they said in their article for Big Speak.

Ask questions and listen to their response

Asking non-accusatory questions with the intent of learning is key to establishing a connection with the other person. Asking questions helps you to understand how they came to their opinion. People never just pick a side on a topic for no reason. They are led by their experiences and the information they consume. If you can see how they came to their conclusion, even if you disagree with the final result, you have a much better chance at understanding their perspective.

“Without realizing it, when we enter this type of conversation, we can often start with statements that are accusatory or blaming. The emotional brain is triggered by statements like ‘you are not supposed to be in groups of five,’ or even questions that are really statements to the other person, such as ‘what were you thinking?’ or ‘didn’t you think about how this would impact others like seniors?’” Pawliw-Fry and Benjamin wrote.

“One reason for the individual differences in following the public guidelines can be found by understanding the culture the person grew up,” Lee said. “Culture can be considered in different levels: family culture, community culture, age, generation-related, Eastern vs. Western. Your culture influences how you perceive, feel, and behave — sometimes in profound ways. For example, some may grow up in an environment that considers the public health issues more seriously and prioritizes following those guidelines over individual freedom. This difference can lead to different decisions on everyday behaviors — like wearing a mask or not.”

This is the kind of information that can be learned when meaningful questions are asked. This way, you learn information that helps you understand their perspective. But asking questions is pointless if you don’t also make an effort to listen.

“Listening makes it easy to handle difficult conversations well because you give the other person the opportunity to express themselves. And the feeling of having been heard makes the other more able to listen themselves,” Berstein said.

Explain your reasoning

In an age of extensive and instant access to information, it is very easy to get lost in the rabbit hole of confirmation bias. When you only consume content that strengthens the belief you already hold, you don’t learn anything quantitative about the other side of issues. When it comes to difficult discussions, it is best to assume the person you are talking to knows nothing about your side and vice versa. You should ask how they came to have their opinion and explain what influenced you to come to yours. Explain the experiences you’ve had or evidence that supports your opinion.

One thing to keep in mind is that, according to Bernstein, it is important to remember that when you are explaining your side, you need to avoid sounding like you are “preaching” or “lecturing” them.

“Explaining is almost always a disguised form of fighting back,” he said. “Most explanations will be heard as, “See here, if you really understand the situation, you will see that I am right and you are wrong.” That is an attack, and it’s also one of the ways we achieve dominance over other people. We act as if we just explain our position really clearly, then the other person will understand and agree with us. I’ve never really seen that work.”

Don’t make them feel defensive

A tough conversation is easily able to turn from a conversation to an argument. Arguments will not help bridge any divide, but rather force both parties to retreat to their own sides and entrench themselves deeper in their own opinions defensively. Bernstein refers to the emotional side of our brain as our “dinosaur brain.” It is primitive in nature and instinctively gets defensive when attacked. Once it’s in defense mode, it either fights back or tries to run away.

“There’s a lot of screaming and yelling, and buildings fall down, but not much is accomplished,” he said.

When you approach situations with a calm demeanor and put effort into keeping them from getting defensive, then you can better focus on finding a solution.

Remember your priorities, don’t give in if you are not comfortable

During this worldwide pandemic, it is important that you remember your priorities, and do what you think you need to do to keep yourself safe. If you have done everything in your power to ask, understand, explain, and the person or people you are speaking with won’t budge, then all you can do is protect yourself and stand up for others. You can’t control anyone’s actions but your own. Take it upon yourself to take the steps you need to to protect yourself and others. Do what makes you comfortable and do not compromise your values.