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Tackling Controversial Issues 101

Updated on November 3, 2013

Intro to Discussing Controversial Topics

It's often said that if you want to keep your friends, never discuss religion or politics. Yet these and many related topics greatly affect our lives. Is there an appropriate way to bring up and discuss these topics without getting into a shouting match where everyone is talking and no one is listening? This article seeks to lay out a basic framework for openly discussing controversial topics with those who agree and disagree with the individual's personal beliefs.

Know The Topic

In order to have a reasonable discussion about any given topic, one must first know how to communicate one's views effectively. Though this might seem to be a very simple skill, very few people have truly mastered effective verbal communication. Even candidates running for president often lack the ability to communicate in a direct and concise manner.

First, one must Know The Topic. Often people will state very clearly they are "in favor" or "against." Yet the truth is often more complicated than a simple yes/no. Ask someone on the street about a morally complex question, such as abortion (and yes, this article will dive right into the nitty-gritty of such often avoided topics,) and they might respond that they are "Pro-Life," meaning they oppose abortion. Now, ask them if they are opposed in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother's life is in danger. They will often be flustered by these questions, as they haven't given the deeper meaning of their position much thought. The reason for this is that they have only discussed the topic with people that agree with them. A typical conversation between two individuals who agree on Topic A will often go something like this...

"Hello my good friend! I saw something on the news the other day. I somewhat agree with News Person A about Topic A. I am opposed to Topic A."

"Well what do you know, so do I. I am also opposed to Topic A. Man, those Topic B supporters sure are dumb! Let's go get ice cream to celebrate our perfectly non-controversial discussion that had no depth and no chance of conflict."

One could dissect such a conversation and write entire articles on the sociological subtext, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on how this conversation is damaging to the individual's ability to intelligently discuss difficult topics. When a superficial conversation such as this occurs, there is no need to delve deeper into the issues surrounding the topic. Thus, when confronted on the nuances, the individual is caught without any real knowledge of the topic.

As a consequence, the individual will often go to extremes in order to cover up his embarrassment and protect his ego. The situation soon devolves even further, with the individual staunchly proclaiming that he is against Topic A through and through, and that any who agree with Topic A are nincompoops who can't tie their own shoelaces without the government's help! Too many instances of this can lead to deep division over relatively simple issues, with each side avoiding honest and open discussions for fear they might be proved wrong, instead sticking to their respective ideological guns.

Thus, in order to discuss controversial topics without embarrassment, one should always know where one stands on the topic in depth, not just a simple yes or no.

Keep It Short

The second thing to remember is to Keep It Short. No one likes listening to an extended monologue. How often do students, bored by a teacher's extended and rambling lecture, drift off into a land where homework doesn't exist and no one has to eat their broccoli? Therefore, in order to communicate one's position effectively, one should always strive to break one's position down into a clear and concise statement.

This may seem to conflict with the previous statement about knowing the topic, but one must realize that this is a case of quality, not quantity. An unequivocal statement such as "I agree with Topic A in all instances" leaves no room for nuance. Of course, spending five minutes citing specific instances and describing your position on each and every one is not effective either. If one has the time, the conversation can definitely cover such data, but initially, one should find a nice, straightforward thesis that accurate describes one's viewpoint, but leaves room to elaborate. For example: I am personally opposed to Topic A, but I am unsure if it is Group A's responsibility to do something about it."

There are clear parallels to the skills college courses require in terms of finding a clear thesis for research papers and the like. In fact, many of those skills are also applicable in discussing difficult topics, such as...

Follow The Evidence

During the early years of the British Empire, many renowned scientists derided the stories of "hairy mountain men" living in the mountains of Africa... until someone dropped a dead gorilla in their laps, that is. The key here is to always Follow The Evidence. Perhaps the most difficult part of discussing uncomfortable topics is admitting that, however unlikely, you might be wrong. Personal beliefs are fine, and you should be honest with yourself where you stand, but when it comes to proving what you believe, evidence is crucial.

An old debate coach once said that "logic plus evidence equals proof." Not only must one know the topic, one must also back it up. Good evidence comes from an unbiased and reliable source, is relatively recent, and is relevant to the topic at hand. For example, if one is discussing something like gun control, having the FBI's statistics on crime from the previous year would be very helpful. The source in this case is very reliable, the timing is quite recent, and crime rates versus gun law is clearly a relevant issue in a gun control discussion.

Obviously, even with evidence, not everyone will agree, but one can make a much stronger argument if a larger (unbiased) organization backs one's position. In an evidence on evidence clash, such as in a political debate, candidates often use skewed research to support their point. For example, if Candidate A is from Party A, and Party A just happens to fund Think Tank A, and Think Tank A just happens to have research that supports Candidate A's position on Topic A, and Candidate A then uses that research to back his stance... Well, one probably shouldn't take all one hears at face value.

Thus, if you wish to be effective and communicate on difficult topics, always follow the evidence. If the evidence doesn't support your position, instead of looking for a biased source that does, one should probably consider refining or even changing one's stance on the topic at hand.

Have Confidence

Some might feel as though they are not fast enough or smart enough to discuss such topics, and therefore don't even try. Though it is understandable as we all fear being on the receiving end of another's rapier wit, the truth is that anyone can be an effective communicator, regardless of their so-called intelligence level or speaking ability. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England during WWII and easily the most influential leader of Britain in recent memory, started life with a rather severe speech impediment. He overcame it with two things: hard work, and lots of Confidence.

Everyone will have a different style of communication, just as everyone has different styles of dress. Some will speak slowly and with great thought, others jumping about quickly and with great energy. Finding one's personal style and having confidence in it is just as important evidence or logic. Many very charismatic and effective speakers are often illogical and rarely back up their positions with evidence, but people listen to them anyway because they have confidence in their speaking style and ability.

Though the prospect of crossing blades with a friend, colleague, or complete stranger may seem daunting, remember, each viewpoint is valid in some way. In the public's eye, one might win or lose, but so long as you know what you believe and why you think that way, one can never truly lose, only learn and grow.

Listen To The Other Side

The final and most important skill is learning to Listen to what the other person has to say. So long as one follows the steps above, one need not use such uncouth tactics as yelling and repeating one's self in order to get one's point across. As such, as soon as one has clearly stated one's position, to continue discussing the topic effectively, listen to what the other person has to say.

There is no guarantee that their position will be as clear and concise as yours, but if one works at listening, one can usually decipher their position. If both sides work at both communicating their point and trying to understand the other side of the issue, communication, discussion, and debate become much easier. If one knows the topic (see above) one should be reasonably well versed in the opposing point of view.

As such, one can skip the usual response, which is look stunned that anyone could possibly disagree with one's superior position. If one listens, one can respond instead with a reasoned and logical rebuttal. In short order, the opposing party will likely return the favor, and a decent discussion can commence.

However, even with decent repartee, if one does not acknowledge the other person's viewpoint or derides them for taking an opposing position, the conversation will quickly turn from a hearty debate into a filthy brawl. Remember, always attack the argument, not the person making it.

If the person does make a valid point, accept it, acknowledge it, and work even harder to make one of your own. In this, a good debate is like fencing. When an opponent manages to penetrate your defenses and tap you with the point of their foil, acknowledge the hit with a nod and a "touche," then proceed to fight with even greater vigor.

Using These Skills

Discussing controversial issues is not something that should be avoided, but encouraged. With the framework laid in this article, one can debate almost any topic effectively and honestly. Obviously, the key to using these skills is practice, so go out and have a discussion with someone. Talking to friends and family difficult and oft-avoided issues can lead to a deeper, more meaningful relationship, provided one approaches it the right way. Whether they agree or disagree, connecting with someone on important issues is an invaluable experience.

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