This is usually a losing prospect. For most of us, our brains are already filled to the brim with years of news and commentary confirming our points of view — and getting out of that vortex is a near-impossible task. With the intermingling of the personal and the political, we so often talk past each other. This list is not about winning, but about becoming wiser about how to have productive conversations around social justice.
The first and most critical step is to center yourself in love and mission. We seek to have these conversations with those we disagree with to advance a greater ideal for what our society can be. The ideal is to bring everyone into a new and better sense of self and community. Centering yourself in love and mission has two purposes: it allows you to take a step back from the stresses of the day to focus on this conversation , and it shows the people you are engaging with that you love them and feel they are important.
Engaging about social justice issues are different from normal conversation in a critical way: the process requires critical attention. So part of this work pre-engagement is to ask yourself what you’re up for. Evaluate your own energy, and know your limits. An important part of this: try to get a sense of the person you’re speaking with, and their motivations. Is it worth it? Are they also going to bring love to the table? Pick your audience and your timing. Replying to comments on a slanted news site’s comments section is an easy way to quickly drain our loving and mission-oriented energy. Conversely, you may represent a view not held by the rest of your family, but feel a responsibility to bring it up. How much are you willing to risk to meaningfully engage with them on an issue important to you? When and where is the right time to engage with them?
When you actually begin to engage in conversation, start with the shared values that bring you to this conversation. Start sentences with “We both want…” For example, if you believe strongly in the rights of seeking abortion services, find a value that that may bring them on board — liberty (Roe v. Wade is an established civil right), or family (allowing pregnant people and their partners to dictate the number of children they raise will produce healthier, happy children and families).
Use language that fits your audience. I run into this so often. When discussing an issue, sometimes you want to parrot what you learned in your feminist theory class, or an Angela Davis speech. But sometimes, this language can be overly academic, or misconstrued. Feminism, for example, can be heard as “man-hating” by people raised to believe it is. Even though you disagree, a loving approach may be to talk about “equality,” rather than feminism…at least at the beginning.
If discussing a population you’re not a part of, take caution. I have a lot of privileges: I’m white, male, cisgender, and middle class. I don’t truly know the daily experience of being anything else and I am not going to pretend I do. When engaging in a conversation, bring in the voices of people of you’re talking about. “I know that when I’ve talked to Sarah about this topic, she has said that…” However, you can both acknowledge your limited perspective, and speak from your experience. As a case manager for the DC Abortion Fund, I can say “While I don’t have the experience of seeking an abortion, I have talked to countless people who have, and have been witness to the immense barriers they face.”
During the conversation, be an active listener. This means NOT thinking about what you’re going to say when another person is talking, but trying your best to hear them, and then form a response. You won’t get anywhere if the person feels they are being ignored. Conversely, when you feel like you’re not being heard, take a breath, and tell the person.
Lower your expectations. If engaging online, don’t expect to go on Breitbart’s comments board and think you can change everyone’s minds. With politics so wrapped up in people’s identities, an attack on a policy or a stance can feel like an attack on the person. When you feel yourself boiling over, recenter in love and mission. Remind yourself that you don’t have to take the conversation to the bitter end. For me, I reach my limit when I start to feel hateful, when I feel the other person isn’t really listening, or when I’ve said what I need to say, and have given the other person their time, too.
Know that you are still planting a seed. You may not have convinced anyone fully, but you may have been a small part of the person’s road to eventual acceptance. Rest assured that if you centered yourself in love and mission before you started, and spoke from your experiences, the other person will feel that commitment and genuineness. Thank them for listening.
Post-engagement, take care of yourself. You probably feel exhausted and emotional all at once. Talk to a friend, take a walk, watch TV, read a book, or eat something delicious. You may not have done everything perfectly. That’s okay. Having conversations about social justice with those who disagree is a critical part of activism, but like anything, it’s about building a set of skills, which takes practice and patience and self-love. Live to fight another day.
- Center and re-center yourself in love and mission.
- Ask yourself what you’re up for.
- Choose your audience and timing.
- Start a conversation with common values you may share.
- Use appropriate language understandable by the other party.
- Listen attentively to the other person’s perspective.
- Acknowledge your limited viewpoint, but speak from your experience.
- Know that you are planting a seed.
- Take care of yourself.
By volunteer Chris H.