Discussing Controversial Topics

Group Meeting

Rob and I converse regularly about political and controversial issues. Not only do we express and compare our opinions, but we discuss the popular opinions on the issue and how those arguments hold up. We also talk about what it is like to engage in dialogue with people who do not share our own opinions. One of the ideas that comes up frequently in these conversations is how challenging discussing controversial topics can be. See, we are often passionate about our views on these topics and want to inspire social change by sharing them. But what often happens is our view is either validated by those who agree or refuted by those who do not. It either becomes a debate where no one follows the rules or a one-sided rant because someone shuts down. And I can’t even fault them for the latter. It’s a defense mechanism for someone feeling attacked. 

But what is the solution? It can’t be to tiptoe around these different perspectives. Ignorance doesn’t do anyone any good. We need to engage in dialogue. If you ever want to move the needle at all on these issues, they have to be discussed. But it’s also important to engage in the conversations because diversity of thought is valuable and exposure to different points of view is something we don’t prioritize enough. But that’s a-whole-nother topic for another day. 

Right now, I want to think about solutions. How do you exchange thoughts on controversial topics in a way that is productive? Check the list below.

To Engage or Not to Engage in Discussing Controversial Topics

While I have already suggested that the exchange of ideas is crucial, it’s not always appropriate to engage in conversations around controversial topics. Here are some things to consider: 

Internal Factors

  1. Am I knowledgeable enough on the topic to offer an intellectual opinion? 
    If you don’t know much, it might not be the best time to throw your hat in the ring and debate on this one. At the very least, admit that you’re not incredibly knowledgeable and offer what information you ARE using to base your opinion/stance.
  2. Am I in the right frame of mind to engage in the conversation? 
    If you’re impaired, it’s perhaps not the best time to start talking about controversial issues.  If you’re in a bad mood or having a rough day, it’s okay to sit this one out. The issue isn’t likely to resolve itself by tomorrow and you can always follow up and engage in conversation then.
  3. Do I feel that NOT engaging in the conversation could be perceived by someone as failing to act on their behalf?
    We are probably all familiar with the quote by Martin Luther King Jr. “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Are you in a situation where you feel as though your words would provide support and advocacy for someone else? If the answer is yes, then the rest of the factors may not matter.

Black man with finger on chin as though thinking about discussing controversial topics

External Factors

  1. Can I exchange thoughts with this person? 
    If you know the other party to be someone who only wants to hear themselves talk and doesn’t know how to listen, you need to decide if it’s worth the stress of trying to make yourself heard.
  2. Does the environment invite intellectual conversation and controversial debate? 
    If you’re at a movie theater or out to dinner with your in-laws or standing in line to get into your child’s play, you really have to think about whether this is a good time to engage in a controversial conversation. It may be. It may not be. And it may not matter, because of #3 above.

While Discussing Controversial Topics

So let’s assume that after considering all the factors above, you do want to engage in the conversation. Great. Now what?


Star Trek's Picard stating "Engage" to discussing controversial topics



You probably knew this one was coming, right? After all, how many times have we heard the Epictetus quote, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”? But really, it’s important to listen for a few reasons.

  1. It’s respectful.
  2. You have the opportunity to seek to understand someone else and consider the issue from a perspective other than your own.
  3. You will be better able to present your own argument if you know where someone else is coming from.

To really listen, you need to do more than just hear what the other people are saying. You need to stop thinking about what you want to say next and focus on what they’re saying with their words, tone, and body language (if applicable).  You need to nod or give small verbal indications that you’re listening like “Okay” or “Mhm.” 

Consider Ground Rules

It may be appropriate in a context to establish some ground rules for the conversation. If this is a dialogue occurring within an educational institution or an organization, it may not be a bad idea to think through a short list of guidelines for the conversation. The list might include things like: 

  1. Challenge the idea, but don’t attack the person.
  2. Consider your language. 
    Perhaps this means that cursing isn’t appropriate in your setting. Or maybe you want to establish a “no name-calling” rule. Or perhaps you want to allow curses, but state that you can’t curse AT someone.
  3. When you leave the conversation today, you’re free to share the learning, but don’t repeat someone else’s story. In other words, people deserve their privacy.

Show Respect

Whether it’s a ground rule or not, you should respect the others in the conversation. Respect may look a little differently depending on the cultural norms of the person and/or the group. Generally, it’s considered respectful in American culture to:

  1. Limit interruptions to times when you need clarification on the other person’s idea.
  2. Don’t dismiss someone else’s perspective, even if you do not agree with it.
  3.  Don’t go into the conversation trying to change their mind.
  4. Avoid inflammatory language. It’s likely to make the other person shut down.
  5. Focus on a conversation and exchange of information; avoid long monologues that are more about your own thoughts.

Show Interest

Use both your words and your non-verbals to show you are engaged and interested.

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. Keep your posture open. Don’t cross your arms.
  3. Lean in to the conversation– literally and figuratively.
  4. Ask open-ended questions that allow the other party to answer honestly and openly without judgement.  This means that your questions are not rhetorical and come from a place of wanting to understand the other person’s perspective.

When Discussing Controversial Topics Gets Heated



Group of visually diverse people having a conversation

If you are sitting on opposing sides of a controversial issue, it’s likely that the debate may heat up a bit. So how do you continue to dialogue in this moment of conflict? Good question.  Many of the tips above are still relevant, but here are a few more suggestions.

  1. Recognize that it’s okay to disagree.
  2. Balance the respect for the exchange of ideas and the need to take a break when things get emotional. It’s okay to suggest that you need a moment (or day or two) to hit the pause button on the conversation to allow yourself some time to process and cool down. 
  3. Try not to let the language someone else may use shut down the conversation. If someone says something that is offensive, try to 
    • Ask for clarification on what they mean. They not be using the word the same way you interpret it.
    • Let them know that you’re offended in a calm or unobtrusive way that doesn’t disrupt the conversation. Some people adopt the “Ouch” technique in their ground rules, in which they simply say the word “ouch” when something offends them but don’t spend time to address the offensive comment or word at that time. You can always go back and discuss that at another time.
  4. Practice using I-statements rather than making accusations. For example, instead of saying “Your privilege is showing when you say that people are ignorant for buying all those plastic options from the dollar store instead of buying eco-friendly items,”
    you could try saying “I feel unfairly judged when you say people are ignorant for buying plastic items from the dollar store. I need you to consider that not everyone can afford the eco-friendly options you’re talking about.”


What you May Glean from Discussing Controversial Topics in a Respectful Way

The thing is, if you really want to engage in an exchange of ideas where there is the POTENTIAL for social change, you have to be willing to recognize that YOU might be the person who changes. And maybe you won’t. But if you go into these political, socially-charged, controversial conversations with the intention of changing someone else’s mind, you’re likely to end up talking to yourself. No one wants to be talked at.  That’s not how a conversation works. And it’s definitely not how you encourage a free exchange of ideas.  

The truth is that if I go into conversations about environmental impact or social justice and accuse people of not doing their part, they’re going to shut down. If I go in and tell people who don’t believe in climate change that they’re wrong and start using science as a weapon, I am not likely to get very far. If I tell people I think they’re being racist, they’re likely to become defensive very quickly. But if I can open the door to other people to share what they know or believe and invite them to consider what I know or believe, we might at least understand where each other is coming from. And maybe… maybe there will be an opportunity that stems from this respectful discussion of controversial issues that allows us to grow together to make the world a better place.

If you have additional tips for talking about controversial topics, I would love to hear them in the comments below! 


Aguilar, L. (2006). Ouch! That stereotype hurt. Dallas, TX: The WALK THE TALK Company.

Grandstaff, J. (2020, June 26). Five Steps To Discussing A Controversial Topic In Group Conversation. Medium. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://medium.com/@Jacob_Grandstaff/five-steps-to-discussing-a-controversial-topic-in-group-conversation-4c5fa4f1322a

Hanks, J. (2015, July 07). Respectful debates. The Daily Universe. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://universe.byu.edu/2015/07/07/respectful-debates1/

Kelly, C. (2019, April 12). Keeping It Civil: How To Talk Politics Without Letting Things Turn Ugly. NPR. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/04/12/712277890/keeping-it-civil-how-to-talk-politics-without-letting-things-turn-ugly?fbclid=IwAR3aswPgsGPF3bW7VeYAK1ayib2Mv4i_4BAOb8wJFyvn-g0fKSkDz1jcfjE

University of British Columbia. (2018, March 21). Resources for Respectful Debate. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://equity.ubc.ca/resources/resources-for-respectful-debate/


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