MCC Guide for Having Better Conversations on Divisive Issues 

Conflict is a normal part of life. It arises in our workplaces, in our churches and with our families. Having meaningful conversations about tense issues is a necessary characteristic of committed relationships, resilient communities, healthy churches, and strong democracies. Jesus’s call to love our neighbours is reflected in the conversations we engage in with one another.  

Jesus’s call to love, however, isn’t a call to avoid or hide from disagreement. In the Sermon on the Mount, and in many of his parables, Jesus publicly engaged with tough and divisive subjects that made those around him uncomfortable. 

In this guide, we offer a few tips for having positive conversations around significant issues in hopes that we can create spaces for better disagreement with respect and authenticity.  

 

1.  Be aware of groupthink 

Often, a desire for harmony or conformity in a group can allow our desire not to ‘rock the boat’ to outweigh our moral convictions to speak out against injustice or misrepresentation. But voicing a dissenting opinion does not always have to ruin the party: 

  • A quick response we can use to disagree without aggression is: “I see where you’re coming from but that has not been my experience...” or “I think that we actually have something in common here. We both feel... but where I differ is...”. 
  • Consider the 3 zones people may be in when learning new information (comfort | learning | panic) and try to avoid sending someone into their panic zone by offering too much information at once. 
  • Use the language of values: “Something I value is... and so that informs how I see this situation...”. 

Be the person in your group who gently reminds everyone that relationships and healthy communities require engagement and that divisive issues can still be safe to discuss because we all have something to learn.

 

2. Do the prep work 

It is hard to have difficult conversations! There are many layered dynamics at play. Add in our deep care for the people involved in the issue and the conversation is ripe for an argument. But we can change that. In addition to understanding our own world views, let us also seek to understand others. Consider the long view: the biblical call to reconciliation is one that we engage with over a lifetime of relationship and doesn’t happen in just one conversation.  

  • Resist the urge to confirm your opinion by only looking for facts to strengthen your viewpoint. Try to notice when your inputs are one-sided and ask, “what is another way to look at this?”  
  • Put effort into hearing the stories and opinions of the people directly affected by an issue or proposed policy. Genuine human connections will complicate the narrative and offer a more nuanced understanding of an issue, but such connections often lead to a greater capacity to move from feuding to inquiry. 
  • Get informed. You do not have to become an expert on a topic to enter into a discussion but it is important to always be learning. Take time to read about topics you care about and commit to following a story, region, or issue regularly. 
  • Be generous with yourself. Giving ourselves permission to have internal contradictions will help us resonate when we see them in others.
  • Talk about destinations, not detours. Take time to understand and articulate what good would come from a desired change in policy or practice. Then use that understanding to ask generous questions that invite others to do the same. 
  • Practice. Spend time engaging with people you trust before embarking on a more public conversation. 

 

3. Identify partiality 

Our brains function with inherent biases in perception which causes us to take notice of information that validates what we already believe and reject information that disconfirms what we believe. This is confirmation bias and we all do it. Building familiarity with our biases can boost our capacity to hold our views a little more objectively and to listen for the values underlying another person’s message. When we listen with curiosity, we may hear values that harmonize with our own such as family unity, human dignity, honesty, self-determination, or loyalty. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Where do you see confirmation bias playing out around you?  
  • What are the values that motivate others? How do they affect their behaviour? Where do you see God’s image reflected in the other person?  
  • Can you identify examples of when you’ve been swayed by your own bias into discrediting a voice simply because they’re saying something you don’t like? 

 

4. Listen Well

Listening well builds trust between conversation partners and is perhaps the most fundamental skill for having a respectful dialogue on divisive issues, including listening to what’s going on beneath the surface. 

  • Check to see if you understand. When we paraphrase what we hear and ask if we understand correctly, we allow others to feel heard. People need to feel heard before they can listen openly. 
  • Listen to what’s happening beneath the surface, and what is happening to your own emotions: 
    • Try naming what you feel when you are in a conversation that offends you or feels divisive.  
    • What value(s) is this feeling stemming from?  
    • Consider how you would like your conversation partner to feel. 
  • Listen for propaganda and power. It is up to each of us to think critically about what we hear and to hold our sources accountable.  The next time you hear a sensationalized story here are two ideas on how to do some investigative reporting yourself:
    • Widen the lens to engage a bigger conversation by returning to the broader context of an issue. Ask out loud...  
      • Where/how did this story originate? What does the other side want? 
      • Whose story is not being told? Who is most affected? 
      • Who has the most/least power? The most/least to gain?
    • Amplify the nuance or complexity of the story. When a situation is over-simplified, it is easier to find polarized sides. Destabilize the debate by injecting narratives that highlight the people involved as humane, relatable neighbours created in the image of God. 

Interested in more information? Download the Peaceful Practices: A guide to healthy communication in conflict curriculum.  

This guide was created by Myriam Ullah.  

 

Banner image caption: Christina Dunfield and Mike Dawson talk with a CoSA participant. Moncton Community Chaplaincy in New Brunswick runs Circles of Support and Accountability for people who committed sexual offences, completed their sentences and are reintegrating into the community. The group of volunteers meets every week with the individual, who is committed to living offence free, to check-in and discuss how they’re doing and help prevent them from offending again. (MCC Photo/Shane Yuhas, 2014)