Civil conversations in the age of growing sensitivity and 13 useful tips to help you

Like me, I’m certain there have been times when you were having a need to express your thoughts, or even talk about certain topics. However, you were probably anxious about doing so. The common fear right now is ‘how would the other individual or a group respond’. Especially when there is a growing list of taboo topics in the society that we now live in. When it comes to speaking about difficult topics, one encounters apprehensions about standing out in a crowd and daring to speak on topics that are either taboo or better spoken in hushed tones in the safe cushion of the four walls.

It is also a matter of cultural influences of a nation that determine what you’re comfortable addressing openly and what you’re not. For example, in the US one would openly speak about marriage and divorce while these are very uncomfortable topics in India and Japan. Some topics that have been uncomfortable to speak about include

Religion and religious practices
Racial issues
Gender identity
Nationalistic ideologies
Physical appearances
Gender abuse
Performance reviews or when someone must be laid off
Marital discord

Many more topics are emerging as perceived to be difficult to speak openly about.

Why do people find it difficult to have open conversations about these and similar topics

  • People fear to be seen as standing out of a crowd that conforms and to be seen as someone with divergent views. It’s always easier to merge in a crowd. That’s what we try to do all our lives
  • People fear they will be disliked by those about whom the matter is spoken about. Being hated or ridiculed is the last thing one wishes for.
  • A feeling of vulnerability about being in the same boat
  • Cultural biases, religious dogmas, family ideology, the political narrative of the dominant party in the country all always weigh heavily on the minds of people. It has been so for the longest time.
  • Fear of the other person getting angry/aggressive/ going into a shell also looms large over the conversations
  • In an era of trial by social media, the fear of expressing anything divergent or commenting upon someone else’s is looked at as highly risky. The fear of being mocked at, ridiculed, and harassed by known and unknown people all over the world puts off many people from expressing themselves freely.
  • Attracting the ire of the political dispensation or rubbing someone wrongly when you need to benefit from that person also keeps many away from speaking their minds.

Avoiding, delaying, diluting or escaping such conversations does not help either party. It only strengthens preconceived notions without any effort to understand the others’ perspective.


What can be done to foster civil conversations on difficult topics

  1. Begin with an open mind that is receptive to divergent opinions and views. No one is trying to change your opinion but each one has the right to hold one which can be different from yours and perhaps everyone else’s
  2. Keep the larger concern in mind, the objective of why a conversation is happening in the first place.
  3. Get the facts straight. Being well informed often plugs holes of ignorance and help shape a better contribution and prevents any faux pas from occurring.
  4. Start with hearing rather than speaking all the time. Understand what others feel and say. That way, you are not in a hurry to form or change opinions, neither yours nor theirs.
  5. Hold respect for the person who is speaking, even if you don’t subscribe to what he/she is saying.
  6. Pay attention to the kind of words you’re using. Vocabulary plays a crucial role in cutting ice and the resultant thawing of tensions. The right words also encourage others to speak their mind freely. The same holds true for body language.
  7. Believe that relationships matter more than what you feel uncomfortable about. So many times, speaking about difficult topics goes on to help find solutions rather than sitting on them
  8. It is extremely essential that mutual respect and dignity is always maintained, or else it can soon turn to a heated debate.
  9. By listening to and accepting divergent opinions and realities, doesn’t make you any less in owning yours. Rather, it makes it easier to include everyone and emerge stronger as a team.
  10. Check your voice and temper. There is absolutely no need to get agitated and disturbed while speaking or listening to a conversation on difficult topics. Maintain your calm by being always respectful.
  11. Speak with the objective of expressing yourself, not to try and convert everyone in the room to agree to your views. Let them have theirs and you hold yours.
  12. Don’t sulk or walk out when someone differs to what you say. Lead the conversation to a logical conclusion.
  13. Keep away assumptions, notions, personal baggage, hidden interests, and stereotypes from the conversation. Identify the triggers that affect your tempers and makes you flare-up. Control yourself when you spot such triggers.

As you get older, it tends to get difficult to change your opinions and views on certain topics that you identify with strongly and believe in. It is, hence, imperative that speaking about such topics and being comfortable addressing them must be part of the education system in schools and in cultured families. Teachers and parents can encourage small kids to understand that there exist diversities in the world around us and elsewhere and that there can be people different from the way you look, live, eat, speak and behave and it is perfectly normal to be that way.

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