8 Step Guide on Effectively Communicating Controversial Topics

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1. Stay Calm. It can be hard to keep your head on straight when having a frustrating conversation about something you are passionate about (I am so guilty of this). However, try your hardest to stay calm and keep the conversation light. If you get frustrated and worked up you will 1) think less clearly, 2) say things you may regret, and 3) potentially ruin chances at a more effective future conversation.

2. Be Open Minded. Everybody likes to think that they are open minded, but in reality this is actually really hard to achieve. Below are some pieces of advice that will help you to keep an open mind.

  • Before starting the conversation, think of reasons that someone may not agree with your view, and look for those opinions throughout your conversation. This will help prepare you for an effective discussion on these talking points.
  • In the beginning of the conversation, recognize your preconceived notions about the person you are speaking with and the topic of conversation, then actively try to eliminate them. Bias is something we all have, and trying to look past bias can be really hard!
  • Throughout the conversation, place yourself in their situation. Their opinion may be completely sound for the situation they are in. For example, you may support banning fishing of a certain species, but a fisherman may only be concerned with the survival of his children. Both opinions are valid, and the goal is to come up with a solution that maximally benefits all parties involved.

3. Don’t be Demeaning. Just because somebody has a different opinion from yours does not mean that they are any less of a human. It is never acceptable to put somebody down because they have a different opinion than you. 

Being demeaning is also the fastest way to make your conversation ineffective. Name calling will 1) make people lose respect for each other, 2) distract you from the topic of discussion, and 3) ruin the potential for future effective conversations.

4. Back Up your Claims. People often do not agree with an opinion because they think that there is either no evidence to back up a claim, or that the evidence is faulty. Avoid both of these but supporting your claims with evidence that the other party trusts.

If the evidence clearly supports the claim, and it is from a source they are familiar with and trust, you may start to break down their bias towards the topic. For example, stating evidence from peer-reviewed journals to somebody who does not trust scientists will not only fail to convince them of the validity of your claim, but will also cause them lose their trust in you because you are only familiar with evidence they see as invalid.

5. Ask for Evidence. If you have solid evidence to back up your claims, why should you not expect them to do the same? Asking for evidence is great for two reasons: either you will learn something new because they made a solid point with evidence to support it, or they will realize that maybe their claim isn’t as solid as they thought it was.

6. Know when to walk away. Some people are not built to handle the responsibility of having effective conversations, and that is okay. 

Your time will be better spent talking with people who have a mutual respect for you and the topic of discussion.

7. Recognize the benefits of diversity. I know this is hard to believe, but there is a chance that some of your opinions are not the best. Humans have been as successful as they are because the world has all kinds of people with all sorts of opinions. Even though it is frustrating when people don’t see something the way you do, understand that this is the reason society progresses. We need diversity so we can work together to create solutions that maximally benefit all parties involved.

8. Extend the Conversation. Did they make an interesting point that you want to follow up on? Did they ask a questions you didn’t have the resources to answer on the spot? Was the conservation cut short? Do not be afraid to initiate an exchange of information or invitation to continue the conversation at a later date.

Any other suggestions? Comment below!

Follow our blog (bottom of page) and Instagram (@beforthesea) for more tips on how to have successful conservation conversations!

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