Conversations on Polarizing Topics Are Possible. If You’re Up for It, Here’s How to Start

I stared at the Thanksgiving turkey on my plate in awkward silence, embarrassed to have brought this disaster into my grandparents’ house. The rest of my family studiously ignored the situation and focused instead on finishing their meal, pushing the remnants of mashed potatoes, carrots, and green beans around their plates. The sole conversation was a severely heated political argument between my extremely liberal boyfriend at the time and my slightly-right-of-center father—an argument so inane that I can’t even remember what it was about. All I had wanted was a peaceful meal surrounded by the family I get to see only twice a year; instead, chaos swirled around us and tension permeated the rest of the night.

Since that Thanksgiving dinner years ago, we have gotten more opinionated and divided, both in our families and as a country. Situations like this one pop up frequently. A friend’s weekly game night shifts into an all-consuming debate about the reality of climate change. Or a family gathering celebrating Grandma’s 80th birthday is engulfed by a shouting match after someone decides to bring up the latest political news. Being “right” in these discussions feels more important than ever. The conversations can reveal potentially relationship-ending opinions held by people we care about, and, for many, the issues at stake represent actual existential threats.

Many people don’t discuss controversial topics with their friends and family in an effort to avoid the seemingly inevitable fights and hurt feelings. My extended family now staunchly avoids talking politics for that very reason. But some topics are impossible to ignore, especially if you’re trying to understand or even challenge the opinions of others.

And although they make me feel like I’m treading on thin ice, these difficult conversations are important to have. Discussing controversial topics with our family and peers helps us learn and grow. We don’t exist in a vacuum and we’re not static. As people, we develop our ideas by interacting with others, testing our thinking, and getting feedback.

Conversations can reveal potentially relationship-ending opinions held by people we care about, and, for many, the issues at stake represent actual existential threats.

I regret that my family took a whole topic of conversation off of the table. I’ve lost the opportunity to cultivate my own thinking with help from the experiences and ideas of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents. And they’ve likewise lost out on understanding my perspective. As we retreat into our information bubbles, these interactions with friends and family members can be some of the few opportunities we have to really stretch our perspective. Losing out on them just makes us more distanced and entrenched in our own ways of thinking.

What is the best way to deal with polarizing topics without resorting to yelling at each other or instituting a moratorium? How can you successfully understand someone else’s point of view, share yours, or even change someone’s mind? How can we as a society have better, more productive conversations with each other, regardless of our social, cultural, or political backgrounds?

If we’re ever going to come together collectively, we need to find a way to come together with other individuals. The alternative is never talking about things that matter to us, including topics where opinions have real world consequences.

Of course, there’s no shortage of calls for us to come together, to listen to one another, and so on. But calling for productive conversations is the easy part. What I’ve found lacking is solid advice on how to start them and how to keep them flowing. 

So I decided to do some investigating. Here’s what I found—three pieces of concrete advice on how to approach conversations, open up others to new ideas, and keep discussions productive.

Importantly, these tips are not one-size-fits-all for every conversation, nor is this piece a prescription for what you should do. The accompanying emotions and stakes will vary based on your personal connection to the topic and your relationship with the other person. These conversations aren’t easy and may feel too fraught (at least right now) to initiate. But if you feel up for it, here are ways you can start.

1. Ditch the deficit model and approach conversations with the other person’s background in mind

Before you even start a conversation with someone, take a step back and think about how their life may have shaped their opinions. Science communication research demonstrates that people’s past experiences and beliefs can act as a perceptual filter and may change how people interact with scientific evidence.

Scientists have traditionally defaulted to a “deficit model” for communicating science. The assumption is that people don’t trust the science on a certain topic because they don’t yet know enough about it. The solution? Simply tell people the facts, thereby remedying their knowledge deficit and increasing their support for scientific ideas and practices. Unfortunately for scientists, the deficit model has proven time and again to be faulty. Past experiences and cultural and religious identity shape how people interact with facts, and in some cases have a greater influence in shaping the opinions of people on controversial topics than actual knowledge about the topic. This holds true for topics from climate change to medical genetics.

People’s past experiences and beliefs can act as a perceptual filter and may change how people interact with scientific evidence.

Take the use of nanotechnology for an example. Nanotechnology focuses on interacting with materials at the atomic or molecular scale, which theoretically could allow us to build and manipulate any structure in existence. The potential of nanotechnology touches on ideas that that highly religious people in particular may object to, over fears of “playing God,” for instance.

A 2009 study specifically examined how support for nanotechnology varied with religiosity. Researchers asked participants how religious they were, if they supported funding for nanotechnology, and assessed general knowledge about nanotechnology. For participants who had low religiosity, support for nanotechnology increased as knowledge about nanotechnology increased. Participants with high religiosity, however, showed no difference in support for nanotechnology, regardless of the level of knowledge they had. Knowing the science didn’t matter—religion ultimately acted as a filter on the perceptions of nanotechnology.

We can shape how we approach complex conversations by learning from the mistakes of the deficit model. Lecturing to people is unproductive, especially since experiences and personal identity have as much of an influence on opinions about a topic as facts, if not more. Instead, take the time to understand your conversation partner’s past experiences and beliefs. Use this information to tailor your message specifically to the identity of the person to whom you are talking.

2. Use personal stories to increase the potential for changing opinions

How should you shape the conversation if your goal is to change someone’s mind on a controversial topic? This is a question politicians and canvassers think about all the time—how can they best influence voters to support a specific cause? Many have started using a technique called “deep canvassing” to garner support from voters, often with long-lasting impacts.

Deep canvassing uses a person’s specific experiences to guide them toward changing their views on a topic. People are resistant to persuasion when they feel pressured to admit their views are wrong and when changing their opinions goes against their self-identity. Deep canvassing tries to change views without using persuasion; instead, people are guided through nonjudgmental conversations about personal narratives related to the topic at hand.

A recent paper from Joshua Kalla and David Broockman provides an excellent example of how deep canvassing works. Instead of directly talking about unauthorized immigration, potential voters were asked to share “a time when someone showed [them] compassion when [they] really needed it.” Canvassers actively engaged in these stories in a nonjudgmental way and eventually brought the conversation back to how the experience of the individual was similar to that of unauthorized immigrants.

Engaging in a personal narrative first let voters come to their own conclusions without feeling forced or pressured by canvassers.

The voter might, for example, talk about how their neighbor gave them a place to stay after their own house burned down. After hearing this story, the canvasser would eventually bring the conversation to how unauthorized immigrants might struggle to find basic necessities like food and shelter when they first arrive in the United States. The voter would ideally make the connection between how they felt when they needed a place to stay and how immigrants might feel when they enter the country, ultimately leading to more support for compassionate immigration policies. Engaging in a personal narrative first let voters come to their own conclusions without feeling forced or pressured by canvassers. Individuals who participated in deep canvassing conversations were more supportive of inclusionary policies toward unauthorized immigrants for at least four and a half months after the experience.

Deep canvassing techniques are also likely effective in influencing people on topics outside of the political spectrum. Using narratives to make points instead of arguments is more likely to create long-lasting changes in opinions: narratives are not seen as manipulative and are less threatening to self-identity than arguments. Being nonjudgmental also decreases defensiveness and allows people to be more open to alternative viewpoints. To change a person’s opinion, focus the conversation on their own personal narratives that parallel the topic, and let them change their views on their own.

3. Actively listen and acknowledge the views and feelings of the other person

Lessons from science communication and deep canvassing are useful when you have a lot of knowledge on the subject or well-developed opinions and are hoping to change minds. But what should you do in situations when you aren’t an expert or you’re trying to learn more yourself?

Active listening is one of the most important tools for a productive conversation. This conversation strategy involves a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues used during conversation, such as restating comments, asking relevant questions, and demonstrating your attention. Asking open ended questions in particular will keep the conversation flowing and allow the other person to open up about themselves and their feelings.

My father is one of the few people in my family who I feel comfortable talking with about politics because of his active listening skills. Recently, for example, I was expressing my anxiety surrounding the 2020 presidential election. Despite our political differences, my father showed me exactly how well active listening works at fostering understanding and connection when talking about a fraught topic. Instead of dismissing my anxious feelings as unreasonable or out of control, he validated them. He asked open-ended questions about what exactly I was anxious about and allowed me to explore what was causing these feelings. Without saying much himself and giving me space to talk, my father calmed me down considerably. After our conversation, I also felt much more supported and understood by my father overall.

Despite our political differences, my father showed me exactly how well active listening works at fostering understanding and connection when talking about a fraught topic.

My anxiety over the election wasn’t unique, but it held the potential to end in stress and frustration. My father could have dismissed my feelings outright or tried to explain why my feelings weren’t reasonable at all. In using active listening skills and allowing me to express myself, he instead made me feel supported. I am much more likely now to discuss topics beyond politics because he has shown that he supports and respects my feelings and opinions, no matter what they are. Beyond my own personal experience, research has shown that active listening makes your conversation partner feel better understood and opens the door for future conversations.

In addition to active listening, don’t be afraid to briefly pause a conversation that’s heating up. Heightened emotions can impact attitudes and perceptions of a topic. To stay open to the conversation, take a break when necessary to get emotions under control. This will allow both parties to be more objective in assessing one another’s arguments.

Remember this

Productive and civil conversations with people who don’t share your views are possible, even in today’s fractured world. Imagining the worst version of those who disagree with you might make you flinch or dismiss the potential of these conversations outright. But there are many shades of gray or, in this case, purple. If you’re up for beginning these conversations, now or in the future, I hope this advice helps.

Remember that simply throwing facts at a person won’t change their mind; use their past experiences to understand where they are coming from and shape the conversation accordingly. If your goal is to shape opinions, let them share stories on parallel experiences that can be connected to the topic at hand and guide them to changing their mind on their own. Treat each other with decency and respect, and genuinely try to share your feelings. A little empathy can go a long way in building positive and productive conversations with each other, and perhaps help us heal the fractures we feel.