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3 Tips for Contentious Times

Autumn view of a red pedestrian bridge crossing a river

Is it just me, or does it feel like we’re having difficult conversations at every turn lately? With so many big, important things happening in our lives and our world, those conversations feel hard to avoid. Dr. Jen Schneider, a professor in Boise State’s School of Public Service, has some advice for us as we continue to figure out how to communicate and build relationships in these contentious times.

About having difficult conversations – especially with someone you don’t agree with:

“Many of us are on hair-triggers, waiting for the person we disagree with to say the one thing that marks them as a member of the ‘other tribe’, and therefore to be dismissed or ridiculed.

So create some opportunities to be surprised and to improvise new conversational moves together. That might mean having a conversation outside of politics first. It might mean asking a lot of genuine questions rather than springing your locked-and-loaded response. Or it could mean hearing some stuff that you really disagree with or that makes you uncomfortable. But if you can ride that out and keep engaged, the opportunity for new kinds of interaction or relationship might open up. Both sides would have to be willing to enter into that in good faith, though–if someone is trying to trap someone else into a gotcha moment, it won’t work. And once something really violent or degrading gets said, the chance of a successful interaction just goes way down. Maybe some ground rules about respectful, dignifying language would have to be agreed to in advance.
And don’t be afraid to say sorry and try again. It may take a few tries to build a relationship.”

About moving forward from this contentious election:

“Learn to cultivate ‘the pause.’ I’ve learned that the minute an idea or comment makes a sense of righteousness or anger or outrage well up in me, that’s a good sign that I need to step away and get centered before responding. I still have to work on this–it’s hard! There’s a ton of reactivity out there, but it’s better to not contribute to that. I’m not encouraging passivity by any means. Sometimes outrage or anger is warranted. But action is more powerful than reaction. So learn to take that space, take that breath, take care of yourself, before you engage.”

About staying active and involved when it feels overwhelming and divisive:

“Find a way to get involved locally. You can join a local organization and attend meetings, or volunteer to stuff envelopes or make phone calls, or rake up lawns and fix bikes to be given away–whatever floats your boat. Getting to know people in your community and actually doing something–rather than just scrolling through other people’s opinions–is a great way to stay grounded and to feel like you have some agency in the world.”

Want to dig into this important topic even further? Join Dr. Schneider and four other political science and foundational studies professors at the “What Happens Next?” post-election conversation in the Student Union (or virtually) on Tuesday, Nov. 10.


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