By Alaina Weinheimer
Pepsi or coke? Cats or dogs? Evolution or creationism? Some topics are easier than others to discuss. Other topics are avoided altogether, like elephants in the room. In the academic arena, we often work with people who share our values and opinions on topics like climate change, vaccination, and evolution. However, discussing these topics with people outside of our bubbles does not always go so smoothly.
A difficult choice for global change scientists is the extent to which we advocate for issues on a personal and a political level. Choosing to advocate sometimes requires addressing the “elephant” issues, especially if one is seeking to gain support from parties or entities that currently oppose favorable action for one’s cause.
During the IGC seminar titled “Difficult Conversations,” Nicole, Sydney, and Ariel walked us through strategies toward having productive conversations about polarizing topics with people who might disagree with you. Prior to the seminar, we read about identity politics and how tribalism often guides one’s beliefs and perspective on issues. As political beliefs can encompass one’s identity, disagreement on political issues can be internalized as a personal attack. This sentiment can create a combative atmosphere, hampering communication. To avoid this potential hostile climate (pun intended), Nicole, Sydney, and Ariel discussed with us the importance of both listening and trying to understand each other’s values. These practices help find common ground and make discussing controversial topics less aggressive.
While these practices do not a guarantee of a productive conversation, several students shared personal experiences where they were able to reach a disagreeing family member by easing into the conversation with a less contentious topic. (I still need to figure out how to connect liking Frank Sinatra and accepting climate change to my denier uncle….)
Some tips for having “difficult conversations”:
- Start with a shared interest (i.e. baseball, music, etc.)
- Acknowledge the rationale behind the other’s beliefs
- Focus on common values (i.e., clean air, clean water, etc. rather than directly discussing global warming, biodiversity, etc.)
- Choose your battles – some people cannot be reached, no matter how hard you try!
Hopefully, these tips will help you the next time you’re caught addressing an “elephant” topic in the room.
Alaina Weinheimer is a 1st year PhD student in Biological Sciences in the Aylward Lab focusing her research on microbial ecology and evolution. Passionate about protecting the environment, she aims to elucidate the effects of microbial communities on ecosystem health and global biogeochemical cycles, particularly in marine systems.