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Supreme Court of the United States

5 Tips for Discussing Controversial Topics During Thanksgiving

By Marissa Mayer posted on:
October 17, 2017

I don't seek out conversations about controversial topics like same-sex marriage, but I do have one friend with whom I regularly discuss it. We are on opposite sides of the issue. He has LGBT family members and believes marriage is about the freedom to love the person of your choice, whereas I approach marriage from a biblical, historical, and sociological perspective. Sometimes our conversations don't go any further than reminding the other person where we stand; other times they last for an hour with lots of back and forth. Sometimes these conversations are easy; sometimes they're difficult.

These conversations have taught me a lot about my own position about marriage. They've also reminded me why the manner in which we have these conversations is so important. That said, if you prefer to combatively argue about same-sex marriage, or other controversial topics like abortion, religious freedom, or politics (and I see plenty of that within the fan/follower comments on the ADF social media pages), these probably aren't the tips for you. But if you want to be prepared to have a conversation—an honest-to-goodness conversation—about a controversial topic with someone who disagrees with you, then you might find these tips helpful.

1. Avoid personal attacks.

This is a biggie. Name-calling, threats, belittling the other person, these are all personal attacks. And they are worthless. The moment you start attacking someone, you lose credibility. You are no longer having a conversation, you are lashing out at a person who thinks differently than you do, and frankly, that's intolerant.

I don't even care what side of the issue you are on; personal attacks are a direct reflection on the person doing the attacking, not the one being attacked. Colossians 4:6 says, "Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person" (NASB). Verbally attacking someone is never gracious, and it does not reflect Christ.

2. Listen.

Having a conversation is about back-and-forth—it's the exchanging of ideas, which requires both giving and receiving. Both people should feel like they are being heard and that their opinions are valuable. Don't be afraid to ask a question for clarification if you need to. Asking questions shows the other person that you actually are listening to and caring about what they have to say.

3. Answer thoughtfully.

Try to respond to what the other person said—don’t just change the subject or forcefully state your position. Keep in mind, the only way you are going to be prepared to provide a thoughtful answer is if you adhere to tip #2 and actually listen.

When it comes time to share your own opinion, it helps if you've given the topic prior thought. Take the time to do your research and form your opinions before conversing. (If your conversation is about marriage, the ADF marriage page or Ryan T. Anderson's book “Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom” might be good places to start). Be prepared to share what you believe and why. If you are talking to an unbeliever, just saying something like "the Bible says it's wrong," isn't going to get you far. Illustrate your point; help the person see the bigger picture; dig deeper.

4. Speak in terms the person you are conversing with can understand.

If I'm speaking to my friend, who is not a believer in Christ, it is completely pointless for me to use biblical terminology or phrase things in a way that won't make sense to him. That's not to say you should never quote or paraphrase the Bible when making your point—my own opinions are formed by the Word of God—but always be mindful of who you are talking to and be quick to clarify. The same goes if you have a PhD, if you're an attorney, or if you are someone who uses technical lingo. Make sure that you don’t let jargon get in the way of your argument.

5. Try to keep emotion out of it.

Emotion can cause things to escalate … quickly. Remember, the fact that a person disagrees with you isn't a reflection on you or them. People can disagree. Friends can disagree. Spouses can disagree. But when we take things personally, or get angry or sad or frustrated, those feelings will naturally come out in the conversation—and not usually in a good way (see tip #1).  

There is a reason counselors advise people to avoid having serious conversations or making important decisions when they are emotional. Strong emotions can cloud your judgment and cause you to do or say things that you'll regret. The same is true when discussing controversial topics.

I'll admit that following these tips is probably a lot easier when you're having a conversation with a friend. But the Internet and the world of social media have opened millions of doors to have conversations with strangers all over the world.  Unfortunately, the tone of many of these conversations reflects very poorly on our ability not only to discuss controversial topics, but to do it respectfully. It is my prayer that all of us would think twice about how we express ourselves. And if you're a Christian, always remember that the "enemy" isn't the person who disagrees with you (Ephesians 6:12).

Share these tips with your friends and family

One of the reasons I wrote this article was a reminder for myself about how I need to act when having conversations about controversial topics. As humans, it is unlikely that we are going to get it right 100% of the time, but we can always strive to do better. If you know someone who might appreciate these tips, I encourage you to share them. 

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer

Senior Copywriter & Editor

Marissa Mayer is an Arizona native who fell in love with the written word at a young age.

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