Tips for Discussing Controversial Issues

Building Bridges Across the Cultural Divide

Controversial issues can expose how divided we are as a society. While sometimes it’s appropriate to sidestep those tricky issues, if we truly want to build meaningful bridges across the divide we need to find a way to dig in and discuss them in a calm, thoughtful way.

To achieve this, the most important thing to remember is this:

The goal is to find common ground, not to debate.

Framing the conversation this way will make it far more likely that it’s a productive conversation that will ultimately help people understand each other. The goal of finding common ground puts everyone on the same team and helps to push back against the instinct to prove how “right” you are and how “wrong” the other side is. People don’t have to come away agreeing on much, but if they come away understanding why the other feels the way they do, the divide becomes easier to cross.

1) Set Clear Ground Rules at the Outset.

For example, here are the ground rules I use:

  • Listen to understand; don’t listen to plan a comeback. (Remember the goal is not to debate.)
  • When we point out problems we observe, focus on the idea, not on a person or group of people.
  • Assume that everyone involved in the discussion has the best intentions.

Ground rules like this are essential. A conversation without them (one that allows for intimidation, skews towards a debate, or lets hateful, misinformation pretend to be civil discourse) is more likely to widen the divide instead of narrowing it.

2) Start with Long-Term, Big Picture Goals.

These can be places where it’s easier to find agreement.

For example, when it comes to the issue of guns, generally most people:

  • Want our communities to be safe places
  • Want our constitutional rights respected by the government.

People will have different opinions on what’s needed to reach those goals. But it can serve as an important starting point of commonality to ground the discussion.

3) Reframe the Question.

Instead of framing the question as: “Are you for or against?”, focus the question on the tipping point at the heart of the issue.

For example: What kind of person shouldn’t have access to guns? And why?

This shifts the conversation away from the emotionally-charged talking points and give people more space to discuss why they feel the way they do in a meaningful way.

4) Work to Rebalance the Power Dynamics.

If there is someone who is one of the only people with a certain opinion, make sure they feel supported when they share. In particular, make sure that the people whose voices historically haven’t been heard as much (or who may feel like others make incorrect judgments about them) are invited to express their thoughts early in the discussion. Removing the power imbalance as much as we can will help to promote an honest and productive discussion.