- The reason that speaking with others about controversial topics is so difficult is that cognitive dissonance is a physical reaction our brain uses to protect itself.
- 3 universally useful steps to help you talk to your significant other without causing this physical reaction are: setting boundaries, using rapport (specifics are included), and asking the right questions.
I have probably heard this sentence over a thousand times the past year– “We are just so divided these days. You can’t talk to anyone without it becoming controversial.”
We have definitely seen a shift in communication, not just in the past year and a half, but truly in the past ten years as we have become more technologically focused. We scroll, click and comment rather than picking up the phone or seeing people in person. And although this past year has been significant in shining a light on what may seem like “warring factions” the shift in the way in which we communicate has not only left us with very few communication skills to handle such a tirade of opposing thought, it has also left many partners and friends feeling that there is no way for them to speak to each other about their own beliefs and opinions.
How do you get through to someone when they have a completely opposite view on an issue than you do? Especially without damaging your relationship with that person. Most especially when that person is your significant other?
The Difficulty of Talking to Your Significant Other About Controversial Topics
There is a large difference between fighting over which restaurant is the best and which course of action or leadership would be best for an entire country to follow. One may make you a little frustrated and sulky for a few minutes and the other could tear apart your entire relationship.
We have come to a place in time where it is difficult for us to accept or to even understand why someone might have a different opinion than us, and maybe that’s because each of us believes that our opinions are not only the “right” opinions to have, but that having an opposite one could hurt thousands of people. And not just people in general, our very families.
I felt this pressure a lot as my belief system about health started to shift when I began to dig into the research behind our government agencies. I wanted to voice my new founded opinions to others, especially my own significant other but I didn’t know what he would think or do. I wanted to truly talk to my family, who are all medical professionals, but I felt like they wouldn’t listen, even if I showed them the data.
However, it got too much to bear on my own so I had to tell my partner what was going on with me. Of course, he was skeptical. He asked me many questions and then it seemed like he didn’t really want to talk about it. However, every time I read a new study I kept slipping in what I was learning. He insisted that I needed to read books that held views opposite of mine. So, I did. Actually, we did.
We read them aloud to each other and looked up websites that were recommended to us by medical professionals. He was tenacious about knowing exactly what my objections were and making me bring up proof. So, I did. We examined the puzzle pieces together and after extensive study, we both came out with the same conclusions.
Every Situation is Different
I was lucky to have someone who would not only take the time to listen but who would take the time to push me and study with me. Someone who wasn’t afraid to tell me, “no that doesn’t make sense, explain it again,” or “why would you come to that conclusion? Show me what you’re looking at,” but at the same time supported me and was willing to admit which evidences were stronger.
However, not everyone is as lucky as I was. Most people don’t even know how to talk to their significant other about extremely controversial issues. Many are not ready for the cognitive dissonance that they will receive. Listening can be difficult on both ends. Many would rather avoid conflict altogether.
And I get it. It is difficult. SO DIFFICULT. Especially when you feel like the other person just won’t give you the chance or the time of day. You didn’t necessarily get into these relationships thinking that you would have to deal with these controversial topics, it probably never even crossed your mind.
But, here we are. So how do you get through to that person you love without seemingly “losing love?”
I know every relationship is individual and that all situations and topics differ. However, I hope to present a few guidelines that will be useful universally regardless of what your situation is.
Understanding the Push Back Behind Harsh Reactions to Controversial Topics
The first step to working through controversial issues with your significant other or with anyone is to understand WHY they are giving you so much push back. That is why cognitive dissonance is the first thing that I talk about in my communications course.
Traditionally, the pragmatic model of the brain is split up into 2 sections conscious and subconscious with a filter in between. We often say that the conscious mind makes up about 10 percent (it’s probably more like 8%) of the brain as a whole and the subconscious takes up about 90 percent.
What we have come to understand about our minds is that, that subconscious 90 percent ages out at about seven years old. By that, I mean that it forms its foundation of core beliefs and assumptions and can “run the body” just the way it is, so it never really “grows up.” This means that if beliefs are allowed to permeate your subconscious mind they might threaten that foundation and the seven-year-old might start to believe something that could be wrong or harmful. So how does the brain protect itself from doing that?
The filter. Your brain’s filter’s job is to protect the seven-year-old of your subconscious. Mostly, by rejecting unfamiliar and potentially dangerous information. In other words, information that contradicts its already established core values and beliefs. In fact, when the filter comes up against contrary information to its already established values and belief system there is a physical reaction. A very negative physical reaction.
This is why when you talk to others about issues that challenge their core beliefs they often get angry, frustrated, or confused. Their brain is trying to protect that little seven-year-old inside. Their brain believes that it is literally fighting for its life. So we shouldn’t be surprised that this can lead to instant yelling or damage to our relationships as both sides are fighting to, what their brain has perceived as, the death.
So the real question we have to ask ourselves is how do we let down our filters and get past cognitive dissonance?
Getting Past the Filter with Your Significant Other
If you have read my previous post on tips for having controversial conversations then you know that the means of communication is just as important as what you say.
So, make sure that if you want to talk about something big, then you give it an adequate channel. This means NO TEXTING. (I’m not joking). Read the previous post for more advice about this. Just know that, over the phone, a video call, or in-person are all going to be better than a text or a post. Period. To talk with humans we need to BE human.
Although, talking with a significant other probably gives you ample opportunity to do it in person, this relationship requires special care. Especially if you are living together; because if you are going to see this person everyday, then there is a little bit of a different dynamic.
This requires more strategy, not because you are being sneaky or coercive or manipulative in any way, but because talking about this kind of stuff is so, so, so delicate.
Step One: Set Boundaries with Yourself and Your Significant Other
This step is all too often overlooked. Everyone needs boundaries, this is heavy stuff and it can get overwhelming fast. So decide, when you are going to talk about these things, for how long, and what you are and are not willing to do, share, or carry with you after the conversation and let them do the same.
When you have a set-aside time and place, it helps both parties to be prepared and by setting boundaries and expectations both parties will hopefully be ready to be more “open-minded.”
It is better to take it in bite-sized chunks. There is only so much we can handle at one time. Make sure you set boundaries about the kind of language you will allow as well, it’s good to have a gauge of when the conversation is becoming all heat and isn’t productive anymore, and sometimes language or volume can signal that.
If this happens take a break for a length of time that you both deem appropriate, but make sure that you set a date that you WILL revisit the conversation.
If you don’t set a follow-up date, as formal as that sounds, then you are likely to fall into an awkward pit of “should I bring this up again, or shouldn’t I?” This awkwardness can often be reciprocated by the significant other who may be thinking that that was a very difficult experience and so they will avoid it at all costs. This can taint the relationship and create the awful “elephant” in the room that never quite goes away tearing down your relationship.
So, even though it might sound a little stuffy and formal, set boundaries, a time and date for the conversation, and a follow-up time and date if not everything is resolved.
Step Two: Using Rapport with Your Significant Other
Just because you may be dating or married to this person does not mean that you have an instant rapport. Rapport happens every single time that you talk to someone. It can take many forms. I often talk about “matching and mirroring” which is still applicable in the significant other situation, but in this post, I would like to address the most important part of rapport in an intimate relationship: speaking value.
When I say, “speaking value,” what I mean is both acknowledging the value that you see in your significant other and being vulnerable; in other words stepping into your own value.
Many of you have probably heard the “sandwich analogy” that goes with giving constructive criticism– positive statement- constructive statement — positive statement. And while this may be a good formula for a co-worker or even a friend, your significant other needs more than this. They deserve more than this.
They need to know that they are utterly valued by you and that you are being completely honest when you say that. This should be completely sincere. Talk about what you truly love and value in them. What do they bring to the table? Let them know that you value their opinions and that you respect their personal views and that sharing your views is not meant to be a judgment on them or their opinions. It is meant to help both of you understand each other better and bring you closer to each other.
This is where vulnerability comes in. It takes strength and vulnerability to accept that you may not change their worldview. You need vulnerability to accept that no matter how knowledgeable you are you don’t know everything but you do believe in something. Or vulnerability to realize that some of your views may not be exactly 100 percent right or the only answer.
If you are nervous, let them know, be vulnerable.
If you are hurt, let them know, be vulnerable.
If you are scared or afraid, let them know, be vulnerable.
If you are angry, let them know, be vulnerable.
This does not mean hurling insults or making them feel bad for what they believe or guilt-tripping them into your beliefs. This just means that you are honest and you show them your heart.
Yes, I understand that many of you are probably thinking something like, “It’s not about my emotions! I am not sad or mad. This is about DATA! They are uneducated and need the DATA!”
I get that. However, it does not matter if it is about “data” or “fact” or “science” or anything else. It is truly about how that data makes you feel. The decisions that it drives and the conflict that it brings into your partnership. We think that we are rational and logical beings, but somewhere in there, it is ALWAYS about emotion.
Even if that emotion happens to be the need for control or camaraderie or recognition or acceptance. The data is just the stimulus for the emotion that is driving you to have this conversation.
So be honest, let them know that no matter what they are valuable to you and show them your heart.
Step Three: Questions are the Key to Success with a Significant Other
It seems counterintuitive in controversial conversations that the key would be asking questions. However, if we are going to help others understand our views and opinions we have to understand their value system first.
Remember, this is all about the unconscious seven-year-old. We need to make that seven-year-old feel safe through rapport, but we also need to ask them questions. Without them, we will not understand why they are being so protective. What value system are you up against? What is being viewed as dangerous in the ideas that you present so much that there is a visceral reaction? Without the answers to these questions, it is impossible to develop a proper strategy to help them understand your views. The more you know, the more research you can conduct, the better your strategy will be.
Do not assume that you already know what the mental block is. Maybe you have an idea, but there could be several barriers or something even deeper that you are not seeing. So take the time to find out, by asking thoughtful questions. Mostly why questions.
Questions also help to break up cognitive dissonance, because they make the filter second guess itself and more carefully reexamine the information that was laid before it. Upon this reexamination, the brain can realize the conflicts and holes in its thinking, not always but often.
If it can’t, the brain often chews on this question over and over again trying to come up with a better answer. Which becomes a softer opening to introduce new ideas and data.
So, bite your tongue and ask before you blurt out what you think is the “right” answer.
Questions are so integral when talking to significant others because they help you to truly break things down without overwhelming your partner. Remember the dynamic is different than anyone else because in many cases, you live with this person. That means we must take a very gentle approach and although this may take longer or seem more difficult, it is going to be a thousand times more effective than any article or graph or data that you might pull up in assumption.
Wrapping it all up
There is so much more I could say, but this article would then become a book. However, the strategies that I have laid out here will help in any relationship regardless of circumstance.
To truly dig into this subject deeper and to understand how to have controversial conversations with any person in your life (family, strangers, authority figures, bullies, large audiences, the media, etc.) check out our communication course: How to Talk to Anyone Without Getting Punched in the Face.
We give you specific guidance and strategies to help you to share your opinions without damaging your relationships.
To wrap up my thoughts on communicating with your significant other here are a few last-minute tips:
- This isn’t a who is “right” and who is “wrong” contest.
- Never undermine your significant other’s intelligence.
- Do not use this as some kind of leverage to withhold affection.
- Do not bring it up with them unexpectedly in front of other people.
- Do not beat a dead horse.
- Look where you might have holes in your logic as well.
- Saying sorry isn’t weak.
- Be PATIENT and forgiving.
Change doesn’t have to happen right now and may not ever happen. And that is okay. Most of all, weigh what is most important to you in this relationship. I hope it is the person that you value and having a healthy relationship with them by communicating with them in a way that is best for both of you.
- How to Have Controversial Conversations With Your Significant Other - April 8, 2021
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- Why Vaccines Replaced Placebos - March 3, 2021