"What do you really think?"
It felt like a trap, but I answered the question anyway. "It feels as if I walked into a room where two people just had a fight. Even though I don't entirely understand what has been said or done, the tension in the air is extremely palpable here."
I was describing my experience in Israel as openly and honestly as I could, and even though my comment was delivered in the most neutral way possible, it was met with a rebuttal that made me feel defenseless and cornered into a heated discussion that I simply wasn't expecting.
Does this ever happen to you?
In our politically charged environment, a lot of us are on edge. It's like everyone is propped up on their toes waiting for someone to say the next "dumb" or "ignorant" thing so that they can attack them and prove them wrong.
I 100% believe in fighting for what you believe in, but not at the cost of belittling someone else, or worse, making them feel unsafe in expressing their views.
The first thing to remember when you are discussing a volatile topic, like politics, gay marriage, or even food choices, is to listen and ask questions more than speak. As you listen, refrain from labeling other people's thoughts and behaviors as right or wrong, but instead, ask questions about why they think the way they do. You might be surprised by the answers you get.
Why is this important? The reason people become so radical is because they ALREADY feel isolated and attacked, and the last thing you want to do is to polarize anyone's views even more. So invite them into a judgment-free space of love and acceptance and just witness the magic that can come through.
Oh, and while you're listening, try your best not to be crafting the best comeback you can think of. I can't even count the number of conversations I've had where I'm just thinking about the next thing I'm going to say. Turn off your offense/defense mode, really listen, and then share your thoughts. Don't worry, there's time!
Secondly, remember the person you are talking to, no matter how different they might be, has so much more in common with you than you'd like to think. They have fears, desires, hopes, pains, and dreams. Throughout your conversation, if you start to get triggered by negative comments, you might start to see this person as an "other".
Before you cast them out as someone lesser than you, remember that their opinions come from a place of worry, ego, and despair. Hatred is the product of a nasty cycle of fear, after all, but little by little, we can break that cycle! Meet this person where they are and be as open with them as possible. It's not rocket science, it's just seeing the other person as yourself.
So things went awry? Don't worry, that's what happened with me in Israel, I lost my cool and ended the conversation by leaving. I felt that this person manipulated me into thinking I could trust them and open up to them, and that I fell into their trap of attack (no matter what you say in Israel, it can be met with full-on heated argument). When I was voicing my sense of defeat and disillusionment to one of my good friends, she reminded me that yes people are manipulative, and people want their views to be heard no matter what, but the best we can do is to not let them manipulate us.
Words of wisdom. You have more control over your reactions than you think! What you don't control is other people's words and actions, of course. But these things don't have to affect you as much as we've been drawn to believe.
The takeaways? When you're entering a volatile conversation:
1) Ask Questions & Listen First
2) See the Person as Yourself
3) Embrace Full Control of Your Behavior & Mood
At the end of the day, we are all doing our best. So take a moment now to forgive yourself for any ugly arguments you've had with people in the past and know that things can go up from here. And now maybe your next heated discussion can be fun!
Kimberly Lucht is the founder and Executive Director of Rehumanize Me. She loves uncovering the common ground of humanity and helping people realize their full potential.