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Civil Discussions in the Age of COVID-19

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

With everything going on right now involving COVID-19, there are so many perspectives and opinions circling about, and it can be easy to get caught up in all of their differences. This is particularly problematic when your opinions oppose those of someone you love or spend a lot of time with. You may have experienced heated arguments or snide remarks. It is especially frustrating when it may seem that person is not paying attention to the facts or even believes the entire pandemic is a hoax. How are you supposed to handle that?

While there are no exact answers, there are recommendations on how to handle a conversation with someone whose thoughts do not align with yours. With this being an ongoing matter even before the pandemic, there have been many studies on how to best handle this kind of situation. Here are some collected recommendations from The New York Times and NPR.

1) Keep yourself educated

The most important aspect of having any kind of discussion is to know what you are talking about. Not only are you taking part in preventing the spread of misinformation, but you are also able to have a legitimate discussion that benefits all involved. The most basic way to do this is by watching or reading the news.

It is important to make sure that your sources are reliable. If so, you will have well-founded examples to draw from. In this article, The New York Times quotes its former editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, by accentuating that, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Facts are undeniable, and if you can supplement them in your examples, you can have a stronger discussion.

The trick comes in, however, by consuming diverse news. You should expose yourself to ideas and opinions that challenge your own. This helps you keep an open mind, which then makes discussions more manageable. It is also important to watch out for confirmation bias, as The New York Times notes. Carl Richards wrote in The New York Times that, when consuming news, we tend to look for evidence that supports our opinions “while discarding anything that contradicts it.”

2) Set rules for yourself

Going into a conversation of this sort, it is incredibly helpful if you set some rules for yourself. Begin by assuming good intentions. Most people believe in their opinion because they feel it is the best option. Give them the benefit of the doubt because you may not fully understand the thinking behind their stance.

You may also not fully understand every aspect of your own stance; that’s why it is important to stay humble during these conversations. In this article, NPR quotes Karin Tamerius, a former psychiatrist and founder of Smart Politics, reminding us that, “While you may be well educated in a topic, you don’t necessarily have all the answers.” This helps keep the conversation more balanced, straying away from any feelings of superiority.

The goal is empathy. You don’t have to agree with anything the other person is saying, but simply try to understand their perspective. The best way to do this is by genuinely listening. You cannot expect someone else to listen to you if you are not listening to them. Remember that they feel just as strongly about their opinion as you do yours.

3) Lead the conversation

Not everyone you have a discussion with will be aware of how to handle it. You cannot make them set their own rules, but if you can lead it using these tips, it is more likely to go well. Also, make sure that the conversation is occurring at an appropriate time. It is most likely doomed if either of you is forced into an argument, especially if the time and place are wrong. Just as vital as knowing when to start is knowing when to stop. You don’t want it ending in hurt feelings.

Once the conversation has begun, it is important to establish common ground as quickly as possible. NPR quotes Tamerius, suggesting that we can find commonalities “around things like values and goals and emotions.” This reminds you that you can relate to your opposition and aren’t as polar as the conversation may lead you to believe.

Lastly, make sure you are discussing and not telling. No one likes to feel attacked and will most likely quit the conversation or go into defense mode. Keep in mind that this is not a winner/loser situation. It is important to make the conversation feel like an actual conversation. Ask for their thoughts on the facts and what fuels and shapes their feelings.

You can’t force perspective on others, but you can help them understand.

To stay updated on COVID-19, make sure you’re following reliable, diverse news sources and visit the CDC for a national overview or Team Kentucky’s source for state-level information.

If you're curious about how others have dealt with opposing views with friends and family, check out this article by NPR. It is a fascinating piece that specifically dives into the struggles of clashing opinions with someone you care about.


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