Entering hard conversations with love: A guide for healthy discussions

We have all been part of an awkward family dinner; we have all felt uncomfortable with a friend’s joke; we have all been offended by a post that an acquaintance shared on Facebook; we have all had the urge to correct our peers on what we know is wrongful thinking. However, we often don’t.

Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult for you to call out someone you know on their hurtful words and actions? It gets increasingly harder to tolerate offensive remarks when they come from someone we love and respect. As human beings who naturally empathize with others, we desire to justify the reasons as to why the people we care about most would hurt us or others.

The truth is that discrimination does not always come from a place of hatred and, instead, from a more silent evil – ignorance. It is difficult to acknowledge that the people we love the most can also unintentionally hurt us with their lack of awareness on certain topics.

As much as we want others to share the same perspectives and ideals as us, everyone — even the people who we might feel are wrong —is entitled to their own opinions. However, there is a difference between an opinion that stems from conviction and an opinion that originates from not listening to all sides of a story. I could either say that a movie is bad because I have seen it before and did not like it, or because I made my judgments based on the trailer. Likewise, we either have personally experienced something that makes us take a position on a particular subject, or we are just afraid of knowing what we can find out in the process of hearing the complete story.

In a time when we openly practice digital activism on social media, we still don’t feel comfortable with having hard, personal conversations with those who are closest to us and have different opinions from us. The problem is that sharing a Facebook post or Instagram story is not enough to encourage those in our innermost circles to actively seek social consciousness.

Though it has effective uses in advertising and organizing offline activism, social media should not entirely replace how we can individually contribute to social causes. Yes, posting a black square on Instagram may not be enough, but it does trigger the conversations we should be having regarding social causes.

However, there is a reason why we would rather speak up on social media than on a deep, personal level with our closest peers and relatives. According to Psychology Today, interpersonal conflict is such an unpleasant emotional state that most of us are programmed to avoid it. For the same reasons why you wouldn’t tell a loved one that you didn’t like their gift, you also wouldn’t correct them on their offensive behaviors: to prevent conflict. Especially if the person who hurt us is an authority over us, like a parent, elder or professor, it becomes progressively challenging to correct them as it could potentially be taken as an insult.

Due to the generational gap and other factors like cultural norms and hierarchies, the younger generations often feel discouraged to engage in civil dialogue with older generations who have cultivated their positions on social issues for a long time and, therefore, could potentially be more reluctant to change their minds.

It is evident that, throughout the last decades, there have been significant shifts in our mindset regarding human rights and social movements. As the younger generations become more aware of social issues and diligently get involved in their communities, as shown by a Pew Research study in 2018, there is an urgent need for older generations to hop on the conversation. Oftentimes, this disconnect among generations is the main cause of conflict when it comes to engaging in controversial topics like racism, gender inequality, politics, environmentalism, among others.

But the age gap is not the only factor at play to explain the fear of engaging in tough conversations. It is often due to the lack of assertiveness — the ability to express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view while also respecting the rights and beliefs of others — that we are unable to prevent conflict when calling people out on their behaviors.

Although assertiveness is a valuable communication skill for problem-solving and healthy dialogue, it is not automatic or intuitive. Assertiveness is a deliberate position we have to adopt any time we want to raise our voices in favor of a cause. Even if this skill is not already wired in our brains, assertiveness surely comes in handy when we want to prove our points. Because it is based on mutual respect, it is necessary for us to enter hard conversations with an assertive nature.

How, then, can we approach hard conversations with assertiveness as a way to fight hate and ignorance on social issues that affect our society?

Accept that conflict is an inevitable result of speaking up. 

As previously mentioned, the reason why we are reluctant to engage in civil dialogue with our inner circles is due to a fear of conflict. Unfortunately, conflict will not stop even if we do approach the situation with assertiveness.

For healthy discussions to take place, all parties involved should commit to respect others’ opinions, but this won’t be the case all the time. More often than not, we will face backlash for speaking our minds, but this should not discourage us from entering hard conversations. Instead, accepting that conflict is unavoidable will ultimately make us free of respectfully voicing our discomfort to others.

Understand the value of conflictive conversations. 

Ideally, tough conversations should result in an agreement or consensus. But just like accepting that conflict is imminent, it is important to see the value of these contentions for our growth. Conflict is a necessary evil because it helps create important changes in our communities. We just have to decide whether those changes will be positive or negative.

There will be divergent opinions, and that’s okay. 

So you have decided to speak to someone about their opinions on a topic, and you find that this person has solid arguments that contradict yours. Despite not all arguments being logically founded, your job is not to change a person’s mind but to tell them your side of the story. If they still do not agree with you, you can only seek to reach a common ground.

Educating ourselves on these hard topics is not the same experience for everyone. It will take longer for some people to unlearn years of having adopted a particular mindset, but the only thing we can do for them is to be patient and bring our concerns to their attention.

It all starts with your personal example. 

The biggest weapon we have in our favor when voicing our opinions is our testimony. If your loved ones have seen your growth and learning process develop, this can further solidify their respect for you and your perspectives. Oftentimes, there will be people who use our past actions to invalidate our arguments and justify their wrongdoings. However, our commitment to educate ourselves and to be open to hearing others’ voices is the perfect example that awareness is reachable.

The way I illustrate this point is by relating it to someone’s personal experience of becoming a believer in Christ. Just as the Bible teaches Christians to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), it also teaches that personal testimony is key for nonbelievers to come to Christ. We are responsible not only for speaking up but also for acting according to what we believe in. There is no such thing as reaching a peak of social awareness; keep educating yourself as much as you desire to educate others.

Changing your opinion does not equate to failure. 

Approaching tough conversations with assertiveness requires that all individuals understand that changing opinions when presented with more information is not equal to “losing.” In fact, being able to recognize our mistakes is a brave action that ultimately leads to a consensus. Since we don’t enter hard conversations with the intent of fighting, changing our opinion does not mean we surrender. It means that we are mature enough to recognize when we are mistaken.

A great example of this point is found in the life of the Apostle Paul. It is easy for us to imagine the backlash Paul must have faced after radically changing lanes. Yet, this change led to his life and ministry having an impact on the Church, and to this day, we recognize the Apostle Paul’s effort to bring the Church as one body (Gal. 3:28).

Tough, personal conversations are necessary for our society’s progress. 

It is undeniable that we can no longer stay quiet when it comes to voicing our opinions and raising awareness. Recent events that have shaken up the whole world are triggering the most important conversations we should’ve had a long time ago. For that reason, we have the moral obligation as individuals in a community to continuously do our part to advocate for these causes. But make no mistake. The current protests for racial equality are not just hashtags or powerful visuals. All of these conversations won’t and should not go away after it is not trendy anymore.

The way that we can actively show support for all social causes is by encouraging each other to have healthy discussions, by speaking up against offensive behavior and by being fearless in the pursuit of social consciousness. Our role as individuals in our everchanging society can be simplified by remembering what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 10:14:

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

How, then, can our peers advocate for the social causes they may not be aware of? And how can they be aware of these issues if they have not heard about them? And how can they hear about them without someone engaging in civil dialogue with them?