Blog, Social Justice

How to Have Difficult Conversations Without Blowing Your Top

How to Have Difficult Conversations Without Blowing Your Top

“Did you see my new yard sign?” I asked my parents when they walked in the door the other week.

I was excited about the Black Lives Matter sign I’d recently purchased in order to counteract the ostentatious Trump display just a few doors down and the Blue Lives Matter sign next door. In addition to the distinctive Black Lives Matter logo, my new sign sported a cluster of fists in various shades of brown and black, raised to the sky amidst a cluster of blooming flowers.

“I saw it,” said my mom, “but I’m not sure I agree with it.”

I froze. “Whaaaaa…?”

“I think all lives matter,” she said, stepping directly into the hole of Things You Obviously Do Not Say.

WHAT!?” I sputtered. “But that’s not the point!”

After that, my head started to spin and then it exploded and then I may have actually said that people who willfully refuse to understand the intention of “Black lives matter” are — and I quote — “idiots” and then my mom said that she was not an idiot and then, afraid of doing more damage, I thrust my copy of White Fragility into her hands and locked myself in my home office and emotionally spiraled because my mom is a rational and loving human being who masked up to babysit my daughter when I attended my local George Floyd-related rally and who voted for Biden and what was even happening right now?

And this is why I am a writer and not a public speaker. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am incapable of having rational conversations about contentious topics. I get emotional and lose the power of intelligent thought and speech.

It’s not productive.

But in an age when calling out and calling in your people are essential actions on a long list of action items we should engage in on the path to effecting change… I really need to get my shit together.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Biden may have won, but the rot within our culture is still very much there, and closer to the surface than it’s been in a while. These difficult conversations will continue to be necessary and, for the love of god, I hope we can all do better than what I just described above.

How to Have a Rational Conversation

Luckily, there are a number of social justice organizations that have been doing the hard work of training would-be activists. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), for example, is devoted to mobilizing white people to do anti-racism work within their local communities. They engage in community organizing, provide activist training… and give plenty of tips on how to navigate difficult conversations.

What are some of the tips I’ve gleaned from reading every single list of tips in existence?

Do the prep work.

If you know in advance that you have some work ahead of you — family members or friends who don’t see eye to eye with you or advocacy work you plan to engage in — SURJ and other organizations recommend laying some groundwork.

Build a support network of folks you can turn to, whether to bounce ideas off each other or just to vent your frustrations.

Have a plan for regulating your emotions in case things get heated. The Turning Toward Each Other workbook mentioned at the bottom of this post contains some great ideas for developing your own emotional regulation plan but, in general, be prepared to take a pause if you feel upset or sense that you’re losing control of the conversation and then just… breathe. Or perform some other relaxation exercise.

You may also want to do some homework on your passion topics. Pin down the facts and — if you’re not sure about something while in the middle of a conversation — admit it, and suggest you go looking for the information together. And because hearts and minds are more often changed (or at least opened) by human stories — versus straight facts and statistics — think about the personal anecdotes you might share to illustrate your point.

Finally, if you know you’re in for a difficult conversation, manage your expectations. You’ll likely not change anyone’s mind… at least not at first. But you may help make someone more open to alternate viewpoints. Think about the outcome you’re hoping for. Think about the outcome that’s actually realistic. And then dive on in.

Determine whether you need to call someone out or call them in.

One of the things we should be doing as anti-racists (or as activists of any sort) is calling people out on their problematic behavior, even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable (though only when it feels safe to do so).

But then there is the concept of “calling in,” explained brilliantly by Ngọc Loan Trần on Black Girl Dangerous. “I picture ‘calling in’ as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us,” writes Trần. “It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray, and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes, a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.”

As with calling out, the act of calling is supposed to get someone to change their problematic behavior. But it’s done with a greater sense of compassion and patience. You can call someone in by mentioning the specific behavior they engaged in or the specific thing they said and explaining why you found it hurtful or oppressive. The key is to focus on the behavior itself, rather than labeling the person as wholly problematic.

Approach the conversation with a sense of curiosity.

Instead of speaking in a judgmental manner, which will only trigger someone’s defensiveness, be curious about what they’re saying. Ask questions about where their beliefs come from and see if you can find those areas of connection and commonality and empathy… the things you both agree on. And then work from there.

It can help to practice “deep listening” or “active listening” (and a link for how to do that is at the bottom of this post). But, in general, to engage in active listening is to listen fully, repeat what you heard in order to ensure your understanding or clarify their meaning, and to try to engage with empathy.

These tips are just the basics. If you’d like to dig deeper into how to have productive and effective conversations about contentious topics with the people in your life, there are a number of resources you can turn to. Many of the resources listed below have anti-racism as their focus, though a lot of the tips they share are applicable to other conversations. And some of the resources are more general.

Check it:

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.


  1. Pingback: My 31 Favorite Reads of 2020

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *