We’ve all been there. You’re sitting around the table with your family or friends and everyone’s all smiles. Then, without warning, an innocent comment leads to a controversial topic and a civilized conversation quickly escalates into a shouting match.
It’s always a shame when what could have been an enjoyable and interesting debate about life, the universe, and everything contained therein – one that could help you all get to know each other better (not to mention know yourself better) – turns into a full-blown argument.
No one can think clearly when they’re angry, and people can easily end up saying things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment
These weighty topics come in all shapes and sizes (take these questions that make you think for example). Life and death, morality, religion, the role of society and, of course, politics, are things that we all have strong views on, and rightly so.
It’s important to have an opinion on certain issues and not sit back passively, but it’s also important to respect other people’s opinions and be able to make each other think without causing world war three to break out around your dinner table.
When one of these debates turns into an argument, the best case scenario is that you’re left with a tense atmosphere.
Worst case, however, they can drive wedges between two people or groups that are very difficult to pry free later on.
If it’s between family members, these ‘discussions’ can begin feuds that can go on for years if you’re not careful.
Don’t worry, though. You don’t have to hang up your debating hat if you want to avoid conflict. You just have to know how to go about it.
Here are our tips for a healthy, interesting debate about one of life’s big issues that won’t end in tears.
1. Avoid any topics that are too personal.
Whilst you shouldn’t generally shy away from difficult topics, if there’s someone present that you know has a particularly controversial opinion on a certain topic, then perhaps steer clear of it.
If, for example, someone in the room is passionately pro-life and you know that someone else present has had an abortion, change the subject before you end up in the territory of reproductive rights.
Whilst it might be an interesting topic to discuss in the right company, if people feel particularly strongly about it for a certain reason, nothing is going to change their minds.
Essentially, if you know that a particular topic will upset someone for personal reasons or that one person’s opinion will be hurtful to others present, it’s dangerous ground.
Of course, you can’t always know everyone’s personal history and you won’t know exactly which way everyone’s moral compass points, especially if you’re not with family or a group of close friends.
You can’t always foresee things, but you can try to use your intuition.
Think about the reasons why someone might seem to be more passionate about, or affected by, a certain topic before you judge them on their reaction.
2. If it’s going too far, change the subject.
If a debate is in full swing and things are starting to get a little heated, steer the conversation away from contentious ground.
Don’t be too obvious about it, however, as people don’t like to feel as though they’re being cut off. That’ll only annoy them even more.
If the discussion happens to be around the table at your house, perhaps start clearing the plates or ask if anyone needs their drink topped up, maybe requesting the help of one of those who’s getting most stuck into the debate.
3. Have background music.
It’s hard to get really angry if there’s a cheerful tune playing in the background. Background music also means that there aren’t any deafening awkward silences if someone says something particularly controversial.
4. Be respectful.
Don’t be dismissive of other people’s opinions, and always listen properly to what everyone has to say.
Although you might completely disagree with their point, don’t be scathing, and don’t be sarcastic. Do unto others, and all that jazz.
Even if your choice language isn’t directed at anybody present, a lot of people will react negatively to you using swear words, seeing them as aggressive and getting aggressive in return.
You’ve got a broad vocabulary, so make the most of it, and save the swear words for another time.
6. Don’t cut across each other.
Trust me, I understand just how difficult it can be to hold your tongue when someone’s just said something that you’ve got an amazing come back for, but make a mental note and keep your mouth shut until they’ve finished making their point.
Remember your manners. Just because they’re a good friend or a family member, doesn’t mean you’ve got the right to interrupt them. Listen, just like you’d want to be listened to.
7. Don’t dominate the conversation.
We all like the sound of our own voices, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does too.
Don’t be shy, but make sure you’re not dominating the situation whilst everyone else struggles to squeeze a word in edgeways.
8. Throw in a joke or two.
Keep it light. Although certain topics don’t really lend themselves to comedy and you should always keep things respectful, in most cases, there’s no harm in making a light-hearted quip about the topic being discussed.
9. Don’t raise your voice.
Sure, it might be a struggle to keep your voice to a normal level when you’re trying to express a fervent opinion that you really feel strongly about, but just remember that voices raised passionately can easily turn into voices raised angrily. Proceed with caution.
10. Include everyone, apart from those who clearly don’t want to be involved.
Some people are naturally quieter than others, and although they might have an interesting opinion and want to give it, they’re not going to shout over the louder ones amongst you. Instead, you can directly ask them what they think.
Some people, however, will quite happily just sit there listening and have no interest in actually talking.
My mother, for example, has the terrible habit of asking my father, who rarely chimes in but is quite content listening to us bat a subject back and forth, what his opinion is, and only succeeds in making him feel uncomfortable.
Use your judgement to determine whether someone’s just being a bit reticent or whether they’re happier as a spectator.
Just because someone doesn’t agree with your political stance on something doesn’t mean they’re criticizing you as a person, so don’t take it to heart.
Your opinion is bound to get picked to pieces in discussions like this, and that’s a wonderful way for you to develop your ideas further and learn from those around you.
If someone makes what seems like a pretty nasty comment in the middle of a debate, remember it was said in hot blood and try to forgive and forget.
12. Leave the debate at the table.
If someone you don’t really know that well has proven themselves to be a raging neo-fascist or sexist during a debate, then feel free to take that as an excuse to never see them again.
However, if you’ve been at a family party and Uncle Bob says something particularly shocking, try not to get too worked up about it.
Whilst you should feel free to challenge his views during the discussion, if you’re going to have to see him again at the next family gathering, holding a grudge will likely cause you more pain than it will him.
There’s nothing like a good debate! Get stuck in and enjoy a bit of word tennis, and see if you learn something new.
Katie splits her time between writing and translation. She writes about travel and self-care and never stays in one place for too long. She’s currently based in beautiful Cornwall, England, after long stints in Brazil and Mexico. She spends her free time trail running, exploring and devouring vegan food.