How to Discuss Controversial Topics

Elena Rahrig
April 2, 2021

Controversy Conversations Elena Rahrig

1. Remember these basic human needs.

  • Inclusion

    People need to feel included. They must be a part of something greater than themselves to fulfill their purpose. Willingly coming into a controversial topic is their effort to do just that… so be nice by making them feel included, even when they have an opposing opinion.

  • Respect

    Everyone needs to feel respected. In fact, when one doesn’t feel respected, emotional intellect tends to go out the window. Be sure to remember how much you desire to be respected, then show others the level of respect you long for.

  • Valued

    Yes, I believe everyone is valuable in their own unique way. Unfortunately, many do not see their own value, therefore, they look for it elsewhere. Perhaps, they get their value from changing the world one conversation at a time. Participating in a controversial conversation just might be the place where they can use their voice to make a difference… even if it is the opposite difference you want to make. Value them and their efforts, just as you want to be valued.

  • Heard

    It is natural for people to want to be heard. A voice is one of the most powerful tools we possess. Words have the power to build up or to destroy. When I was a young girl, I remember a woman telling me that she would rather her husband beat her than to verbally abuse her. She said this to me because I said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to my brother. Obviously, to this day, I still remember what she taught me. In essence, words are extremely important for people to use to express themselves and feel alive. Even when someone has an opposing opinion as you, as long as they speak respectfully, they have a right to voice their opinion. Remember, you are not the only one who shows up to a conversation to be heard.

The only way for you to get your basic human needs met is to meet other people’s basic human needs. So, during a controversial conversation, be sure to allow other people to be seen, heard, respected, and valued.

2. Use your emotional intellect.

It is easy to get emotionally worked up when speaking with someone who has an opposing opinion. When you find yourself emotionally charged, ask yourself “Why?” Typically, it is because you want others to think the way you think… believe what you believe… act as you act. This, my friend, is nothing more than pride and arrogance; and it’s cult-minded. You must allow others to be their own person, just as you desire to be your own person. Being your own person means you get to believe what you want to believe, and you have a right to be you without others attacking you. Seeing how it is natural to get upset when someone refuses to see things your way, you need to have emotional intelligence to calmly make it through these moments with dignity. At all times, control your emotions during controversial conversations.

3. Listen to understand, not to be understood.

I was born talking… so they say. Yes, I was the child whose desk was constantly being moved away from all the other kids because I could not stop talking. As I sit here at 38-years-old, I so badly want to go back to all my teachers and say, “Guess what? I am an author, speaker, and radio show host.” (I bet they wouldn’t be too surprised.)

I know more than anyone the fun that can be had when talking. However, I have also learned [the hard way] that there is a time and a place to talk, and a time and a place to listen. And yes, it took me learning the hard way a thousand times–I’m stubborn like that. However, finally I succumbed to the fact that I (and you) have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

When we think about what we want to say next while the other person is speaking, we are still still talking… it’s just that we are talking to ourselves in our heads. So, to truly stop talking, we must switch the brain to listening mode. When we are fully engaged in listening, we can listen to understand the other person’s point of view, emotions, and passions on the topic at hand.

Have you ever walked away from any type of conversation where the other person did 90% of the talking? As you walked away, were you drained? Did you think, man that person never shuts up? Then, did they text or call you to let you know how much they enjoyed their time with you? Meanwhile, you’re thinking, that was miserable! 

The other person had a blast because their human need to be heard was fully met… but yours was not. However, they now think you are amazing!

When you listen–truly listen–you win! Even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Work to understand the other person’s point of view, and don’t be too upset if they don’t reciprocate. Too many people do not know how to listen… especially how to listen to understand. Because you do know how to listen, you are the wiser of the two people in the conversation… you win!

4. Don‘t expect to change the other person’s opinion.

Let’s face it… we all go into a conversation believing we are right, and boy are we excited to tell someone how right we are. Well, if you feel that way, so does the other person coming into the conversation. When you know you are right, your opinion is closed for adjustments… just as is the other person’s opinion.

The next time you enter into a controversial conversation, do a heart-check to see if you are ready to have your opinion changed. To be willing to change your opinion on something you whole-heartedly believe (like there is or isn’t a God) means you are willing to admit you are wrong. Admitting you are wrong on a topic you fully believe to be true is very difficult. In fact, typically it would take the power of a thousand Clydesdale horses to sway your opinion a fraction of an inch.

Well, my friend, we are all too much alike. So, if you are going into a controversial conversation to swing someone’s opinion over to your side of the aisle, you better have a thousand Clydesdale horses ready to do the heavy lifting.

Just stay focused on listening to understand and being heard, in hopes some difference is made… something good comes out of the conversation… even if all it is, is understanding… which is a huge success! I call this, The Meeting of the Minds.

5. Avoid using shut-down phrases.

  • You’re wrong
  • That’s not true
  • You need to get your facts straight

Understand that everyone gets their information from various sources. Depending on the sources you read, listen to, or watch, you will believe accordingly… just like the other person. Therefore, everyone believes they are right based on the trust they have for their source. Understanding this will allow you to remain calm by using your emotional intelligence.

6. Set clear ground rules.

  • No name calling
  • Set an amount of time for each person to speak
  • Assume everyone has good intentions
  • Keep the power balanced
  • No interrupting

    Keep a notepad to write what you want to say when the other person provokes a thought. When it is your turn to speak, refer to your notes.

7. Do not participate in a controversial conversation with someone who does not actively study the topic.

My husband and I enjoy golfing. Of course I know a thing or two about golfing. If However, if I were golfing with Tiger Woods, I would not speak to correct his game. In fact, I would instead ask him for pointers to help improve my game.

The same actions should be executed when you are going into a conversation with someone who is an expert on the topic, when you are an amateur.

For example, we are currently in a political battle nationwide… and boy is it brutal out there. I have studied politics for several years; and in fact, I used to teach it. So, it is exasperating (to say the least) when someone, who is programmed by what the tv tells them, wants to stomp their feet in prideful glory because they know it all. (It is called a television program for a reason.) These people are not worth my time, nor energy, to even enter into a debate with. Just as I would not debate a pro, I won’t debate a know-it-all amateur. And, either should you. Just move on to someone who is intellectually on your level, or someone who wants to learn from you so they can be on your level.

8. Use facts to back up your opinion.

There is no fact in a stand-alone opinion. An opinion is merely a belief. Just like noodles are not spaghetti until you add the sauce, you must add facts to your opinion to transform it into an unshakable truth. Therefore, when sharing your opinion, include a fact to solidify the point you are making.

9. Use personal stories to back up your opinion.

Adding stories to your opinion seldom makes your belief a fact; however, it does bring an enormous amount of understanding to the table.

A very close friend of mine believes the complete opposite of me on many political and religious topics. We can spend hours over a bottle of wine and a gourmet cheese board while talking politics and religion. Never once have we entered the realms of pissed-off-ness. Instead, we tell stories of our childhood (how we were raised) and life experiences to explain why we think the way we do. In the end, we both fully respect each other and can see why each of us believe what we do. Without the stories to concrete our opinions, frustrations would surely stir in our hearts because we would lack understanding. And understanding is a must-have when speaking on controversial topics.

10. As soon as the conversation turns to a heated argument, take a break to allow everyone to regain composure.

It is inevitable that someone will say something that irks you, and you will say something that irks them. This is a basic human response to hearing something you dislike. Even if you are grounded in emotional intelligence, you still have emotions arise that do not feel good. Even more, sometimes we all fail at utilizing our emotional intelligence… maybe because what is said and done has a stronger force than our emotional intelligence.

When these times rear their ugly heads, take a step back to regain your composure. Walk away to take the time to remind yourself that in order to gain momentum in the conversation you must bring yourself back to a place of calmness and understanding. Self-talk your way back to emotional intelligence.

4 replies
  1. Daria Dillard Stone
    Daria Dillard Stone says:

    This was truly an eye opener. I had to learn to stop talking and become an excellent listener. With all the confusion in our world today, we need information like this to talk about the conflicting issues that won’t go away. You made it plain Elena and I respect you for the truth in this blog. God bless and keep you. #YouNailedIt

    • Elena Rahrig
      Elena Rahrig says:

      Thank you Daria! I am happy to hear you enjoyed this article. You are right, we do need a platform to talk about the tough issues that won’t go away. This is why I am to announce that Unity 97.9FM gave me a second radio show to allow me to talk about any and all controversial topics. I am currently preparing the show line up, then will launch it in the next couple of weeks. I will keep you updated!

  2. Terry Sparks
    Terry Sparks says:

    Fabulous article. The point isn’t to win the argument but to learn something, respect another opinion and yet stand up for yourself with humility and strength. Building bridges is more important than pushing buttons.


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