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How to Engage Effectively in Controversial Discussions

            Part 1 of a series on communicating about controversial topics

At The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 2011 this year, a theme emerged in many of the talks and panel discussions. That theme was how to engage effectively in controversial discussions. I emphasize the word effectively. It got me thinking on many levels, and I’ve spent a lot of time since then examining my own motives.

As an Evangelical Atheist who practices secular Buddhism, I often find myself engaged in controversial discussions where emotions and defensiveness run high, and verbal wars break out. Sometimes the anger and argument is so volatile that it’s easy to miss the point of the discussion. The sad thing is, each and everyone of those people truly wants to be understood, but can’t be heard over the name calling and accusations.

I’m seeing something similar within the Buddhist community as secularism challenges traditional thought. Controversies are often underpinned by strongly held beliefs, and I’ve realized that any time we dare to rub up against belief, including our own, we need take a few steps back and assess the situation before diving in headfirst.

As I listened to Carol Tavris and Eugenie C. Scott speak at TAM, I had some important insights, and how I incorporate my practice into these sensitive conversations I engage in. Carol emphasized in her talk how important it is to understand our intention or purpose, and to adjust our message accordingly depending on who we are talking to. Is it important that you just spew out your thoughts, or do you really want to be understood? Do people understand what you mean versus what you are saying?

Wording is crucial in our conversations. Carol pointed out that anyone is going to be offended by being told they are not critical thinkers. I know I’ve been told this by religious people, and after being shocked by the accusation, yes, I found myself offended.

I realized  I can be more effective in my conversation with others if I first throw myself under the microscope slide of Buddhist practice:

  • Mindfulness of intention: Before saying anything, first I need to be mindful of my intention in engaging in a conversation. Is my intent to simply share my view? Is my intent inform or correct erroneous information?
  • Mindfulness of a expectations: We often enter conversations not thinking of a goal, but we may have expectations we haven’t really thought out. Is my expectation to change the mind of the other person? Or is my expectation simply to share my view? What do I really expect is going to come out of this conversation?
  • Mindfulness to situation: How we speak should depend on who we are talking to, and how we present our information. If you are talking to your mother who is upset that you don’t believe in god, then how you present your view should differ from if you writing a blog or answering to someone’s question in a forum.
  • Mindfulness to speech or writing: What I have found most offensive is when others start off sentences with: You just think that because . . .  You are just like . . . So, when I speak with others, I need to be mindful to keep to my own view, to not think for others, or make accusations that they are this or that.

Underlying all of the above is mindfulness to the attachments to our own views, to anger, to feelings of fear and angst. We need to examine these before launching headlong into an argument. Because my indoctrination in Christianity as a child and becoming an atheist at a young age, I found myself in conflict with family members that caused me a lot of pain. So, I am mindful to my emotions when addressing these kinds of conversations, so that my words are not driven solely by anger and reaction, a feeling of defensiveness.

More over, I realized in listening to the talks at TAM that we need to come from a place of compassion. After all, aren’t we really trying to improve the world with these conversations? Don’t many of us just want a lot less suffering through letting go of delusions? Well, for me the answer to that is yes, so I draw from a sutta in the Middle Length Discourses, MN 48.

In this sutta, Mr. Gotama is addressing monks who have been arguing, not listening to one another, and are exchanging sharp words. Gotoma reminds them of what is conducive to reverence, unity, friendliness and love for each other:

  1. Loving-kindness of body
  2. Loving-kindness of speech
  3. Loving-kindness of thought

Additionally, Gotama reminds them how difficult it is to see things as they really are when you are obsessed with certain thoughts, with certain views, with emotions, or with having to be right. Sometimes, maybe we are just too attached to engage in meaningful conversations. Maybe we need to attend ourselves, let go of old baggage, before diving into controversies.

As I read some of the conversations online where controversies arise, particularly religious/non-religious ones, it becomes apparent that we often are blaming the victims. The victims are those who are ensnared in beliefs. Many of these people have been made fearful of examining or letting go of such beliefs. Many of these people are victims of the institutions they were forced to attend as children. Some people are simply victims of poor education or lack of being informed. Regardless, they are all people, people like us who just want a happier, safer world.

I see a big difference between writing a blog that attacks an institution or organization that is taking advantage of people, and directly attacking those people who have been victimized. We do need to out the nefarious cults, religious groups, political organizations that seek to harm, but we have to be mindful and compassionate of the followers, the victims, who may not know better.

Above all else, we have to first have compassion for ourselves, and take the time to be mindful of our motivations, intentions, and need to communicate to those with opposing views. Secondly, we need compassion for those we are speaking to, and understand where they are coming from, why it is they also wish to express their views, to hold tenaciously to beliefs.

Once we are well-grounded in mindfulness, we can respond intelligently, instead of reacting emotionally, and we can more effectively get our points across, or at least out there for those who can be receptive to it. Discernment goes a long way, and obtaining that happens through careful scrutiny of oneself, mindfulness of motivations, and compassion for all.

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  1. earl on July 29, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Dana a very thoughtful and compassionate examination of the issue as well as open sharing of your own path as it relates to this. It may be that when we are complex thinkers we see things in very complex ways. In the area of discourse and debate (especially on the web, where like in our automobiles, we are somewhat disinhibited because of the lack of actual proximity to the physical presence of another human) is it important to have fairly simple strategies, as we quickly get lost in the adrenaline fuelled details and contents of our arguments. So, in keeping it simple, it is really enough to just treat other people with respect in our verbalization to them. So this would include such things as not telling them what they are about, how they think, what they are trying to do, etc. and involves not demeaning their personhood or, more simply, calling them names. I think it is also simple to keep in mind that as primal human beings the subtext of every debate is to win. If I can remember that this is not really possible, except in the enormously abstract goal of sharing perspectives, then I can relax a bit about the primal “contest” which is always an element of such behavioral performances.

  2. […] Part 1 of this series: How to Engage Effectively in Controversial Discussions […]

  3. Forrest on August 1, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    One thing that I have noticed is that people are not likely to consider a proposition which challenges their beliefs during a discussion because of the element of confrontation. They will be much more likely to consider what you have said later, though, when they have time to reflect.

    With this in mind, I often consider my goal in such conversations to simply be “planting the seed” — presenting my idea in such a way as it may be contemplated later by my interlocutor. To try to do more is usually unrealistic, and if defenses are raised too high, counterproductive.

  4. […] 1 of this series: How to Engage Effectively in Controversial Discussions Share […]

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