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How to Discuss Controversial Issues with Your Mental Health in Mind

  • February 29, 2024
  • Healthy living for mental well-being, Patients and Families

As elections, wars, and other controversial events and issues swirl in the news feeds and on social media, you may have strong viewpoints and feel passionately about a cause. You will also encounter people who have an opposing view to yours — in your family, at work or school, on social media or somewhere else in your life.

Sometimes entering a discussion with people with whom you disagree can seem like an appropriate step to take. Sometimes, it’s better to leave the issue alone. Psychiatrists from APA’s Council on Communications offered advice as to when and how to have a difficult conversation, and how to check in on yourself once it’s over.

Is it Time to Engage?

When someone says something that angers you, you may want to react right away. “Don’t do it impulsively,” says Jack Drescher, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, and member of APA’s Elections Committee. “If you see something you disagree with, feel free to write something, just don’t send it right away. When you’ve written it down and gotten it out of your system, then you can ask yourself: ‘OK, do I need to talk to this person?’”

According to the Editor in Chief of Psychiatric News, Adrian Preda, M.D., it’s a good idea to ask yourself if there is an opportunity for a productive conversation, and “if the way it looks like from the get-go is that it’s not going to happen, it’s not a good idea to engage.”

A central goal of a contentious conversation might be to educate someone on the facts as you see them, particularly if the person you want to talk to is in a place of prominence. Another goal might be to strengthen an existing relationship. But if someone is unlikely to change their mind or unlikely to engage with respect, it may be better to let the moment pass. Similarly, consider your own position—are you willing to be open to listening to the other person’s views and opinions?

As you prepare for the conversation, think about the personality traits of the person you’re about to engage with. If someone is tentative with their viewpoints they may need to be drawn out with questions. Others may particularly appreciate hearing that their view is respected. According to Preda: “if you can welcome the persona in the interaction, it will take away a lot of the weight of the conversation.”

Having a Purposeful Conversation

Difficult conversations can be better in person than in writing because there can be more of a give-and-take and shared time. APA Council on Communications Member Monica Taylor-Desir, M.D., M.P.H., shared a practice for discussion that is utilized at her home institution, Mayo Clinic, which comes from the Native American tradition of Talking Circles or the Circle Process. In this process, everyone is encouraged to sit in a circle and take turns sharing their thoughts.

The process is aided by ground rules emphasizing honesty, sharing one’s own experiences, willingness to learn and sharing the discussion time. These rules can apply to any difficult conversation. If a conversation is approached with these principles in mind and all parties are willing to act with curiosity and empathy, and truly wish to learn from one another, the result may be that they do.

“Talking Circles or Discussion Circles create a space that encourages learning from each other on an even plane. We say there is no teacher or student. We come willing to be open to new ideas and open to hearing and value a person’s experience and different perspective,” said Taylor-Desir.

Active listening is another way to help ensure you are participating in the conversation thoughtfully and purposefully. The United States Institute of Peace offers a lesson on practicing active listening designed to help people in difficult conversations reach better conclusions together.

Often the best way to begin is to find areas you do agree on. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, ask for clarification. Make a genuine effort to be interested in what the person is saying and why they’re saying it.

Reflecting on the Conversations

Some conversations will go better than others—if you feel like boundaries were crossed, you or the other party engaged in ad hominin attacks, or that anyone lost control, those are red flags. But if intense feelings arise, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To deal with those feelings in the moment, it may help to ground yourself by taking a walk or unplugging. Preda notes that once you are feeling grounded there is always an opportunity for self-reflection, and to ask: “What is it about me that brought these feelings on?”

The bottom line is that if thoughtfully chosen and then conducted, these conversations can help build stronger relationships and help us learn.

Ground Rules of Discussion Circles*

  1. What you share within the context of the conversation is confidential, honored, and respected.
  2. Use "I" statements. No one speaks for another or for an entire group of people.
  3. Focus on your own experiences.
  4. Be honest and willing to share.
  5. Listen with curiosity and the willingness to learn and change. Resist the desire to interrupt.
  6. Share the time equitably.
  7. Be open to the kernel of wisdom in each person's story.
  8. Extend grace to yourself and each other.
  9. Refrain from negative and dismissive language.
  10. Be accountable for impact.

(*Courtesy Mayo Clinic Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Committee) 

This blog was written in consultation with the APA Council on Communications.

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