by Kim Wadsworth
Because the world feels especially agitated right now, we need to find ways to navigate conversations toward a healthy direction.
General pleasantries are always easy: your favorite new recipe, a novel you can’t put down, a show you’re binging on Netflix. It’s only when conversations shift toward sensitive topics fueled by the maelstrom of social and political unrest – with a pandemic thrown in for good measure – that things get sticky.
Suddenly, the timeless fundamentals of effective dialogue that etiquette master Emily Post believed in – “stop, look and listen” – lose their meaning as tender topics rise to the top.
As crucial conversations take place on social media and in personal interactions, communication specialist and author Debra Roberts says you must state your intentions up front.
“When discussing a difficult topic, start by saying something positive such as, ‘I’m not looking to argue about something that’s important to you.’ Just know that if you are heading into a conversation that’s a hot topic, there could be a disagreement,” she said in a recent podcast on her website, TheRelationshipProtocol.com.
The key is maintaining self-awareness and keeping your feelings in check, Roberts says. “If you get worked up, take a minute and excuse yourself. Don’t lose control but politely say, ‘Let’s talk tomorrow.’”
So, what is the best protocol to keep the peace without sacrificing your beliefs? For Lisa Godley, producer of WHRO’s Another View with Barbara Hamm Lee and Race: Let’s Talk About It, and co-creator of the etiquette podcast Mind Over Manners, it’s simply The Serenity Prayer.
“Accepting those things that you cannot change, the things that you can, you do, and the wisdom to know the difference,” she says. “You know who this person is, or those people are that you’re having this conversation with. If they are die-hard, ‘I’m not changing, I’ve been this way all my life,’ then it falls under the lost-cause category. You’re going to waste your time and it’s only going to create tension.”
According to Godley, one important step is to make friends with people who don’t look like you. Develop those relationships by learning about their struggles and what they’ve been going through.
“Get comfortable enough so that you can pick up the phone and say, ‘Does this sound racist to you?’ … The better you know the person you’re speaking to, the more comfortable that conversation is going to be,” she says.
Family gatherings can be especially risky when taking part in a conversation that could go in many directions. At his grandmother’s funeral, conceptual artist and curatorial consultant Charles Rasputin was acutely aware of the importance of normalizing his emotions when it came to politics.
“With family, you need to tune into social intelligence and learn how to listen with patience and empathy,” he says. “I knew there was political divide, but I tried not to judge or pick anything apart. Even though we don’t agree, there’s a way to talk about things and show that we’re important to each other. Love is a free gift.”
Pivoting during a challenging discourse means being more fluid and open. Trying to change a person’s point of view if you’re not knowledgeable enough on the topic can cause a conversation to spiral out of control. Godley encourages people to become better educated on sensitive subjects.
“There are so many books out there where people are sharing their stories, or people have experienced different things that you can read and learn something about another race, another religion, another point of view,” she says. “It’s a great and centered way to start a conversation.”
Broaching difficult topics is always a challenge, but now is the time to be bold. Roberts says we know how to communicate, but most adults avoid initiating conversations for fear it could take a left turn and hurt someone’s feelings. Godley says it’s a critical moment to let our voices be heard, especially as it relates to talking about racial injustice and inequity.
“You don’t have to be incredibly aggressive, but don’t be afraid to speak up because your voice could be the voice that brings about change,” she says. “If you don’t speak up, nothing’s going to happen. If you speak up, it could be the catalyst that makes it happen.”
Kim Wadsworth has been a source of etiquette protocol for 20 years. Her company, Southern Charming, offers consulting on communication and social skills essential to personal and professional success.