I don’t think anyone, would disagree, that our American society has become a place where folks argue and get down right angry about almost any topic such as: Immigration, Women’s Rights, Racial issues, LGBTQ issues, Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life, Liberal vs Conservative, Socialism vs Capitalism, Global Warming, Healthcare Insurance, Freedom of Religion, etc.

I’ve lost life long friends and family members, both liberal and conservative, because I didn’t support their view on some issue. My guess is, you too probably have experienced something similar, even if you didn’t lose any friends or family because of it, but may have gotten definite hostility aimed at you, simply because you didn’t share someone’s viewpoint. Sadly, some folks have the attitude of their way or the highway.

One thing I’ve learned, in the 5+ years I’ve been writing this column, prior when I was a radio talk show host on Wilmington’s WILM Newsradio, and for the years I’ve spent on Facebook discussing issues with folks, is that it is a rare event when you’ll change someone’s mind about an issue they feel strongly about.

So, the question becomes, how do you navigate your way through a discussion with family and friends, and not end up getting into a heated argument? Obviously, the easiest answer is don’t discuss any of those things listed above. That isn’t always possible, because even if you don’t bring up a “thorny issue” someone else may. With Easter and Passover family gatherings coming up, it might be a good idea to think about how to have a decent discussion and not start a “World War 3” at your dinner table.

First step is to become a good listener. Most of us don’t listen very well. We are busy formulating our response to what the other person is saying. So as soon as they take a breath, or we get impatient waiting for them to stop talking, we interrupt them and give them our response. They of course do the same thing back to you. No one is listening to anyone.

Listening and not interrupting is hard to do, because you already have an idea of what they’re going to say, but resist the urge to interrupt them. I’m not an expert at this, as my wife can attest to, but I’ve been working hard to be a better listener and hopefully she and others would agree that I’ve improved.

I try to listen to their entire thought, not just the first sentence. Then rather than offering an immediate reply, I pause for a few seconds, to allow some silence, so I can digest what they said. It also slows down the pace and helps to prevent a discussion from escalating into an argument. Then I may repeat part of what they said to make sure I heard it correctly; or if I don’t totally get their point, I’ll ask for clarification. This shows them that I was actually listening and considering what they were saying. If they show lack of patience while you pause to think, simply say, I’m considering what you said, and I need a minute.

Second thing to do, is to put yourself into their shoes. As the old expression went, you won’t understand my journey until you’ve walked a mile in my moccasins. Consider that many of us do not know what it’s like to experience racial bigotry, poverty, gender inequality, etc.

So, asking questions to better understand what it is like to walk in their shoes or moccasins will greatly help you to understand their perspective on the issue, which will probably surprise them as most folks don’t care enough to do this. This approach will help to calm the waters and build a bridge between you and them.

Just because you don’t agree with someone, doesn’t mean you have to be combative. This is not a college debate. If you approach a discussion, as a debate or battle, where you must win at all costs, you can pretty much guarantee that you will tick off those in the discussion and probably anyone else who’s listening. You won’t convince them of your point of view, but may lose a relationship with a family member or a friendship.

Last point, is don’t be condemning when making your points. How you say it is just as important as what you say. Your tone of voice can also be a factor. This is another good reason for that few seconds of silence, as it will help you to not get snarky or sarcastic. Neither helps you get that other person to listen and actually hear what you’re saying. As an older person, it also is easy to slip into an authoritative voice, when talking to a younger person. Take my word for it, those younger folks don’t appreciate it at all, and will tune you out. Simply speak to them as you want them to speak to you.

Sometimes, in spite of doing all of this, there are some folks who just want to argue and will argue no matter how or what you say. Rather than take the bait, just let them rattle on and then gently try to end the conversation by simply saying we’ll just have to agree to disagree, and move on to a topic less volatile or excuse yourself to use the restroom, etc. If all of us would try to do this, we could make a difference in building a bridge to civility with each person we dialog with. Maybe eventually it would grow and change how our nation interacts with each other. Hope you all have a happy and peaceful Easter / Passover holiday.

Mike Cannatelli’s column appears every other week in the print edition of the Avon Grove Sun and the Kennett News.
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