Holidays can be a conversational minefield of different opinions, beliefs, and mindsets. Here are some tips for navigating tough conversations.
The Holidays are on the horizon, and we all know what that means. Family celebrations with a helping of passive aggression and political hostility. If you are one of many who can’t face the holidays without dread, here are some tips for creating better, logic-based arguments. Learn to defend yourself on every point from who you voted for to why you don’t have kids yet.
It is a simple fact that few of us are professional debaters, and few more know how to share their viewpoints in effective ways at all. When tensions are high, we should strive for what’s known as a good-faith conversation. Having productive conversations instead of detrimental arguments requires assuming the best of others and lowering your defenses. Yet, there are many pitfalls to watch for when having tough conversations with loved ones.
Know Your Fallacies
Logical fallacies are flaws in reasoning. They can be reflexive or deliberate, but they are always detrimental to productive discourse. The Strawman is a common fallacy that involves misrepresenting or oversimplifying opposing arguments. This is often a defensive reflex beginning with phrases like, “You just want…” Try a method instead known as the Steelman, an honest attempt at understanding the claim the other person is trying to make. Repeat claims back with the most gracious interpretation you can muster. Countering an argument at its best is more convincing than framing it dishonestly from the start.
You want to avoid the ad hominem, Latin for “at the human,” at all costs. Nothing dissolves good faith faster than personal attacks. See also the tu quoque fallacy, or “whataboutism.” Questions answered with questions when someone is uncomfortable with or unable to answer, prefaced with the phrase, “What about…” We see this one in politics a lot these days when one person is out of arguments or had none to begin with. Questions left unanswered precede mirrored accusations or ad hominem attacks. Your best recourse here is to point out the behavior and ask your question again. They may still deflect, but that’s when you focus, be adamant, and demand accountability.
The Slippery-slope fallacy is an emotional leap of reasoning that assumes links between ideas and inflated consequences. These assumptions can signal incomplete knowledge of a topic or deliberate panic-inducing manipulation. The difference between slippery-slopes and realistic consequences is a lack of causality. For example, “more broken families will lead to more kids in daycare.” vs. “more broken families will lead to the destruction of civilization.” This example presents two outcomes; one is reasonable and well-defined while the other is ill-defined using vague yet evocative language, relying on emotion to compel you to fill in the gaps yourself. The daycare outcome makes sense when you consider one parent has less time to care for children than two.
Anecdotes, Evidence, and Consensus
Many discussions include anecdotes or isolated incidents masquerading as evidence of our claims. Anecdotes are presented as personal experience yet rarely heard from the person themselves as they are viral in nature. Because of this, anecdotes are easy to fabricate, pair with slippery-slope fallacies, and incite emotions rather than show real social trends. While they should never replace actual evidence, we can still use anecdotes effectively. We all need different amounts of right vs. left brain persuasion on any topic. Hard evidence followed by relevant, factual anecdotes is more persuasive than either alone.
Your basic college English course identifies three major components of acceptable evidence; relevance, sufficiency, and representation. Relevance being; does the evidence support the claim or distract from it? Sufficient evidence focuses on the claim rather than broadly addressing multiple possibilities. It may be cloudy outside, but is that sufficient evidence that it will rain? Representative evidence is typical, most common, or standard; the median result. Clickbait, sensationalist anecdotes are not representative evidence as they typically occur on the margins, if they occurred at all.
Appealing to logic comes with its pitfalls, like the appeal to authority—it’s not true just because someone important said it. As seen in pseudoscience, medicine, and religion, we rely on others without understanding the evidence. We are all guilty of this, there isn’t time enough in the day to be an expert on everything. It is important to verify consensus rather than searching for one Ph.D. that agrees with you. The other extreme is the Bandwagon fallacy, which is the appeal to consensus without expertise, “Everyone is doing it!” This idea is as unreasonable as appealing to expertise without consensus. Both are necessary for good evidence.
If possible, establish one topic and don’t deviate until you reach a conclusion. Arguments are defined by rapid-fire accusations without discussion or mutual respect. Move on before the boiling point when it is clear resolutions aren’t reachable. Likely because of one or both communicators commits to fallacious logic. At this point, the conversation should move to another topic. Your ideas may still sink in later when everyone is less defensive.
A potential consequence of knowing just enough to be dangerous is what’s known as the Gish Gallop. It’s tempting to throw out your best arguments all at once, burying the opposition. Pseudoscience followers consume large amounts of misinformation to feign expertise on their subject. A rehearsed word salad of points can be just as indicative of insincerity as much as passion. Anyone confidently knowledgeable enough will defend each individual claim. Anything less could indicate dishonest quote-mining and taking scholarly evidence out of context.
A key point to remaining calm is to remember the nuance inherent to everything. Life is gray, and moral absolutism stunts our moral growth and our understanding of the world. There are no perfect answers, and your average person would not have them if there were. Many of us will defend a bad idea as adamantly as we would defend ourselves. One way to prevent anger and defensiveness in conversation is to recognize that your ideology is not your identity.
Your Ideology Is Not Your Identity
It’s no secret that political strife is high, and tense discussions are almost inevitable over the holidays. Mason discusses how this political polarization came to be. Key factors include a lack of policy awareness and increased identity-based ideology. The identity-based ideology is one that appeals to emotion over logic. As we’ve seen, an improper balance of logic and emotion leads to conflict and a breakdown of communication.
There is no touchier subject than one that threatens someone’s sense of identity. Tribalism is the most basic way we create identity. Surround yourself with the familiar and define yourself against the other. This innate human drive can lead to ignorant partisanship and herd mentality instead of meaningful change. Identity-based political support gives in to emotion, follows group-think, and rages against criticism. This result can affect any party affiliation or ideology, and the only cure is to remain open-minded.
We all fill in the gaps in our knowledge with comforting assumptions. Yet, ignorance makes us vulnerable to the emotional manipulation of in-group attachment, causing combative interlocutors to mask ignorance with aggression. Questions are your best friend when speaking to someone like this. People without good reasons for their beliefs will crumble under scrutiny. This tactic is most effective when you listen in good faith and construct meaningful follow-up questions. Be sincere in your attempts to understand without slinging accusations.
… team names without issue knowledge can generate political conflict that is unmoored from distinct policy goals. This is likely to lead to a less compromise-oriented electorate. After all, if policy outcomes are less important than team victory, a policy compromise is a useless concession to the enemy.Lilianna Mason – “Public Opinion Quarterly”
An inability to compromise hurts us all. Have an open mind; if you are in the right, that will bear itself out in an honest discussion. Defensiveness only shows doubt, and doubt shows ignorance, be willing to concede your point graciously if necessary. Again, if we required a perfect understanding of everything to get by in life, we’d never leave the house in the morning. However, those who do not understand their positions cannot defend them. We should strive to be experts on what’s most important to us.
A last-ditch effort to salvage heated conversations focuses less on what the person believes and instead on why they want to believe it. We all have our weaknesses and insecurities. The most open and honest communicators understand theirs, even if they haven’t dealt with them. Aim to understand the person behind the identity and learn about yourself in the process.
We are all guilty of tuning out the other person, too busy preparing our responses, not knowing what we’re responding to. Identity-based ideologies go far beyond the political. They can arise from any set of ideas we accept without fully understanding because they appeal to what we want to believe. We can all be prone to childish outbursts when things don’t go our way. Becoming a better communicator relies on personal growth and maturity as much as knowledge and empathy.
Don’t be afraid to explore the world outside your echo chamber. We all have our protective bubbles, but regular exposure to new information only strengthens your arguments, broadens your knowledge, and enriches your life. The only thing scarier than having your mind changed is never having your mind changed. Learning numbs the fear of being wrong because you will be wrong frequently and only grow from it. I can attest to having never been happier than when I began indulging my curious mind.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the goal of productive conversations isn’t to change the other person’s mind. Only you can change your mind. The goal is to have a conversation where both of you leave with a greater understanding of one another. The discussion should encourage movement beyond the boundaries of your understanding. Some people are and always will be resistant to this; precipices, real and imagined, are scary, and personal growth can hurt. However, if we all fight against these common reflexes, we can stand as an example of good faith communication to those around us.
These tips are just as much about self-reflection as they are about surviving holiday conversations with friends and family. These are, unfortunately, not one and done solutions rather the start of a process of improvement. It will take practice, and you will learn a lot about yourself and how to pick your battles. This process has made all the difference in my difficult discussions of late. I now forgive the demons and questions the angels and find them merely human instead. It is still a process for me, the allure of attaining moral perfection is strong, but life is a journey on which there are no destinations.
Become an expert on what’s important to you. True understanding grants us the confidence to keep our minds and hearts open to others. The greatest lesson you will learn from asking any question is that there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Keep learning and growing and never be afraid to ask yourself and others why. Happy Holidays to all!