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SALT LAKE CITY — We are constantly surrounded by online news. Tweets, posts, videos and alerts crowd our phone screen every moment of our waking (and sleeping) lives.
The pervasive and endless controversies of the news can bleed into our family life, exacerbating existing divides and making it harder to hold conversations.
John Gable, founder of media organization AllSides, and Joan Blades, creator of Living Room Conversations, gave a TED talk in 2017 about the way online news affects us. Gable, who identifies as conservative, and Blades, who identifies as progressive, found they were able to speak across large political divides and decided to help others do the same.
Gable and Blades recently presented at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in California — an event designed to foster discussion on ways to meaningfully connect through technology. The pair discussed better ways to converse with those that feel differently than you.
Here are five of their tips:
Understand online communication
Online communication is problematic. Gable believes it often matches one of two models.
“One is what I call the 'Football Stadium' model. Imagine we are all in a huge crowded football stadium, and the only person we notice is the nudist yelling obscenities at the 50-yard line. ... We see a lot of that on Twitter,” he explained.
In other words, we often pay more attention to opinions that perhaps don't reflect the majority — just because they're more noticeable. The anti-vaccination movement is a good example of this model, he said. While only a small group of people are "anti-vaxxers," they're a vocal minority heard by many.
The other is what Gable calls the "Conspirators" model. This often occurs when people cast blame without having the full context or all the information, he said. They may create a version of their own truth based solely on the limited knowledge they have.
Online communication, including comments about the news, how the news is written and how the news is shared, can fall into those models and lack the nuance of nonverbal cues, Gable said.
When talking to family and friends about controversial subjects, do it in person, he advised.
Before engaging in any potentially difficult conversation, think first. What are your goals with the conversation? Are you trying to win an argument or understand? What are your feelings towards these family members or friends? If your relationships are particularly fraught, then tread extra carefully.
Finally, try to be aware of your own biases. People typically look for information that confirms how they feel and dismiss other information. Understand that we all have our own biases and bubbles of information.
Set conversation agreements
Location data and data from cell phone records found that the Thanksgiving dinner after the 2016 presidential election was shorter than others on record. Researchers with Columbia University’s Difficult Conversations Lab “estimate 27 million person-hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving discourse were lost in 2016,” averaging about a 20 to 30 minute shorter Thanksgiving.
People have difficulty talking across partisan divides, but having conversation agreements can help. Blades said some of these agreements can include:
- Being curious: Listen as much as you talk and have an attitude of exploration.
- Finding common ground and noting differences: Look for common ground you can agree on.
- Getting to the point: Pay attention if your own conversation or points you are making are drifting from the topic.
- Refraining from judgement: Set aside your personal judgments and be open to the idea that you may not understand the topic fully.
Know your exit plan
Sometimes, despite good intentions, conversations can become destructive. Plan ahead what you will do if that happens.
Can you and your family agree to take a break? Can you recognize your own emotions and triggers and take a second to breathe, or be able to excuse yourself to talk a walk?
Consider agreeing beforehand that if the conversation becomes heated, you can both say something like, “I’m sorry we argued. I care about our relationship.”
Understand there’s always more than one side
“When we only talk with people just like us or only know one side of the story, we become more extreme than any other idea or other person,” said Gable.
Controversial issues are complex, not black and white, he said.
"People are vastly oversimplifying what has become an ever more complex society … and they have less knowledge on issues like health care or immigration,” said Peter Coleman, co-executive director of Columbia University’s Difficult Conversations Lab.
Online news, with its short visual format, simplifies those topics even more. Understanding that these topics are multi-faceted and that there are multiple ways of looking at them can make us more empathetic and patient when talking to family members.
Despite the potential for arguments, having these difficult conversations with families is important, Gable said. He agrees that we need “lots of small, diverse groups,” like families, to encourage civil discourse.