There you are, relaxing on the sideline as you watch one of your kid’s activities and trading inconsequential small talk with the parent beside you: Topics meander from the weather to marveling at how much energy kids have to agreeing that sleep is an under-appreciated privilege, etc. Suddenly, wait — WHAT? — the other parent drops a decidedly un-PC comment into the conversation. Worse, they say it as if they expect you to agree with them. After all, you’ve bonded over the struggles of potty training, right?
Mmmm, no. Their offhand remark is not okay to you. Maybe the comment is inherently racist, sexist, or offensive in any of a countless number of other ways that display a shocking amount of ignorance and/or run counter to what you strongly believe. Regardless, this person has aired a polarizing, emotionally charged comment in what should be neutral conversation territory… and, oh gosh, there is still half an hour left of the activity.
You are trapped.
Whether you have a tongue that fires with hair-trigger swiftness or (like me) you instinctively shy away from conflict, you are stuck. You’re probably not going to engage in a passionate argument in front of your kids, and you can’t easily ignore the person or leave (common responses if you hate conflict).
So, what do you do? Well, the only way out in this situation, unfortunately, is through.
I recently experienced one of these awkward interactions at my son’s Ninja Warrior class. While chatting with an amiable grandmother beside me, I asked if her grandson was starting kindergarten. She proudly declared that they had enrolled him in a private religious school to avoid “all that nonsense they teach in public schools about gender!” Her voice dripped with disgust and she glared at me, insistently, to back her up.
Little did she know, this former elementary school teacher strongly supports the new LGBTQ-inclusive school district policies that are being implemented in British Columbia. I was totally taken aback by her comment, and I absorbed all of her anger as if it were directed at me.
My heart pounded, I broke into a nervous sweat, and, truthfully, I wanted to run away. But some views need to be countered. I took a deep breath and said, “I think it’s important that kids know that everyone is worthy of love and support, and if they feel a certain way about their gender or sexuality that they are still safe and accepted.” Well, my actual words were not nearly as articulate, but I got my point across.
This was not the response the woman expected. She sat with her mouth agape, her stare boring into my skull for several excruciating seconds; she then harrumphed and gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the class. It was incredibly awkward, but she knew where I stood and the situation didn’t escalate. In retrospect, I wish our interaction could have turned into something more positive, rather than just two people expressing contrary opinions and then not speaking to one another.
The American Psychological Association developed a tip sheet for navigating politically charged conversations that can be applied to any type of awkward or polarizing exchange. Their advice includes the following pointers:
Do what you need to do (take deep breaths, engage in self-talk, etc.) in order to be able to respond calmly. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that you can always change the topic.
Listen to understand
It’s difficult, especially when you feel that you are “right” and the other person is “wrong,” but try not to view this as an argument to be won. Knee-jerk, personal attacks will only increase conflict, so be respectful in your response and listen. Most opinions don’t come out of nowhere — try to figure out what experiences and beliefs have informed theirs.
Calmly share your opinion on the topic and explain why you feel that way. Even if the other person disagrees, they are more likely to listen if you’re not name-calling or shouting.
Seek common ground
Are they expressing a shared fear or concern (for example, related to the health and safety of children)? If you can pinpoint commonalities, you are more likely to have an exchange of ideas, versus an entrenched standoff.
Agree to disagree
Controversial issues must be talked about in order for people to advance their understanding; however, your preschooler’s gymnastics class is hardly the time or place for a heated exchange. You could say something like, “I disagree with that idea, but I don’t think this is the appropriate place to continue this discussion. I’d be open to talking about it over coffee another time.”
Conflict can be a good thing
On her Working Parent Resource Podcast, writer and facilitator Sarah Argenal dedicates an episode to how to navigate polarizing conversations. She makes the excellent point that we can’t take other people’s agreement with us for granted, that we need to have our opinions challenged and to examine grey areas. This helps us to clarify our thinking and not become complacent in our assumptions about the world.
It’s not about you
Argenal also stresses that just because a person has strong opinions on a topic and is passionate about how they express them, it isn’t (usually) about you, personally. Being able to make this separation helps to approach these conversations more objectively. The exception here is if you are the victim of targeted hate, in which case I sure hope that witnesses will step in and help. It’s on all of us to make sure that bullying and harassment of any kind are not tolerated or ignored in our society.
I’d like to believe that my experience at the rec center was a one-off, but it reminded me that, despite the echo chamber of our carefully curated social media networks, out in the wide world there are people from many different backgrounds and with many diverse opinions. It’s inevitable that, in the course of my son’s schooling and extracurricular activities, I’m going to run into more parents and grandparents who communicate views with which I disagree.
So, despite that exchange being all kinds of awkward, I’m glad that it happened. My lingering discomfort inspired me to learn how to navigate such conversations in the future. Not only does this further my own growth, but it helps me to model healthy communication skills for my son. It also taught me that I do have the strength to stand up for my beliefs, in person as well as from behind a computer screen.