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5 Tips for Thanksgiving Debates: Lessons from a Sex Ed Classroom

By Leslie Massicotte, Teens Climb High Program Specialist



We’re entering the Thanksgiving holidays, and if you’re like me, you may (still) not know what it will look like this year.


Some might choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving or will celebrate it alternatively (it’s important to know the celebration’s roots in colonialism and the genocide of indigenous peoples). Some may opt for Zoom family time, and others may travel (please be safe!!). Regardless, many of us will most likely be in contact with family and friends whose opinions may differ from ours.


And that most likely means the potential for some heated debates.


Many of us have heard the advice to stay away from politics and religion at the dinner table, but sometimes it’s challenging and downright dangerous to not say anything.

We’re in a political, historical moment in which black and white thinking is the norm and folks with different opinions are pitted against each other as enemies. This often results in divisive arguments about everything from racially charged protests to covid precautions to our president’s choices. People calling each other names, folks not interested in listening to others, and individuals not willing to say they’re wrong and embrace learning.


The divisive language is not limited to folks from one political party or one social identity group. It’s coming from all directions. If your social media feed has been anything like mine in the past few months, you’ll have seen it coming from all sides.


In our sex ed classroom in the Teens Climb High program, we seek to encourage open, shame-free conversations about sensitive topics. We teach our students to communicate their opinions openly and respectfully. They learn to hear others’ opinions and to be open to new ideas.


This does not mean we leave room for oppressive comments.


Racist, homophobic, and sexist comments, as well as any other comment that argues that someone’s identity is not valid, have no place in our classroom, at our dinner tables, or in our world.


But there are lots of folks who may disagree with us on various topics who are also willing to engage in meaningful conversation. And there are ways to have that talk that don’t alienate and anger them and will make your point of view seen and heard more effectively.*


So next time you’re witnessing or engaging in a heated conversation--whether virtual or in person, with family at Thanksgiving or with coworkers if you’re sticking around--we encourage you to think about these lessons on nonviolent communication we’ve gleaned from our sex ed classroom and to see how you can use them in your own conversations:


1. Use “I statements”

When you’re trying to get a point across, frame your thoughts as “I statements” instead of phrasing them as absolute truths.


Examples:

Noon is the best time to eat lunch. I prefer to eat lunch at noon.

Vs.

Attending protests is the best way to I think attending protests is a really

advocate for anti-racism. important way to advocate for

anti-racism.


Why this matters:

Everybody comes from different experiences and has different perspectives. What you think is the most important might not be for someone else. Even if you’re trying to convince others that yours is the best way, framing it from your own perspective using phrases like “I’ve found it important to consider….”, “I personally believe….”, and “It matters to me to….” is really helpful for others to hear what you’re saying without feeling defensive that you’re ignoring their opinions or experiences.


2. Empathize.

It can be hard for us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, even for a minute. What might they be thinking? How might their experience be different from mine? How might this impact them? Bring a sense of empathy into your conversations.


Example:

Someone says: I don’t need to wear a mask because covid isn’t a big concern anymore.

You could consider exploring these questions before responding: Where are they located? Are they in a rural town or different country where covid cases are becoming less of a concern? Do they only spend time with their family and have their groceries delivered so maybe there’s no need for a mask? Why aren’t they concerned about covid? How has covid impacted them, or not? What news do they listen to?


Why this matters:

Learning to empathize with others can help us be more understanding and open-minded to their opinions. It can create the thought process of, “If I were in that situation, I might react in the same way or believe the same thing.” Our context is incredibly important and recognizing where folks are coming from can create space to learn and change our minds together.


3. Sandwich your critical feedback.

This is a classic way to provide critical feedback. Sandwich the feedback that might be hard to hear between two things you think the person did well or two things you agree on.


Example:

I completely agree with you when you said ‘x’. I disagree with your statement ‘y’ and here’s why… But I see where you’re coming from and appreciate your response.


Why this matters:

We live in a super divided country these days. We’re used to feeling “if you’re not 100% with me, you’re against me,” and if you’re like me, I often find myself acting defensively when someone disagrees with me. It can be helpful to find the common ground between yourself and the person with whom you’re debating. Sandwiching your disagreement with examples of your common ground can go a long way towards hearing each other and changing our minds.


4. Admit to your mistakes. Nobody is perfect.

It’s definitely hard to admit when you made a mistake. But it’s really important for trust and relationship building to own up to it. Even in heated conversations online when you might not know the other folks well, you can be a model for how our opinions can change and how we don’t need to be tied to certain comments or concepts, especially if they’re hurtful to others.


Example:

You know what, I’ve never thought of it that way. Good point.

Or

I’m sorry that my comment landed in a way that I didn’t intend. I want to acknowledge the impact that had on you and clarify what I meant.


Why this matters: If you can take feedback and give yourself room to grow and change, we can make strides towards a less divided society. We are learning and growing all the time, and we should have the space to both change our minds and to own up to our mistakes that have hurt folks. Admitting to the impact of our mistakes goes a long way towards folks feeling respected and heard.


5. When this doesn’t work….

Some people aren’t going to change their minds no matter how hard you try.


Example:

It’s ok not to compromise on statements when people’s identities are being devalued. There’s a lot of difference in someone saying “Gay people are gross” and “LGBTQ issues don’t affect me” or “Black lives don’t matter” and “Racism isn’t a problem in the police.” Nobody is gross. Black lives do matter. There is no room for compromise on those. But there might be some wiggle room when folks don’t think issues affect them or they don’t think something is a problem and you do.


Why this matters:

Using this example, someone who believes that certain people are bad or gross just based on how they identify or what color their skin is has different work to do than the person who thinks that racism, sexism, and heterosexism don’t affect them. You shouldn’t feel that you need to cater to someone who is overtly or violently racist or sexist. A lot of other times, however, folks don’t have the same information as you or grew up believing something different, so sharing your experiences and what you’ve learned could be helpful in changing minds. Figure out which battles are worth fighting and when these conflict resolution skills do and don’t work.



We hope these tips encourage you to examine how you engage with others and how your words come across. Note that there is a time and place for these strategies, and we hope you use them wisely. Good luck!




*I want to point out that there is a history of telling, especially folks of color, women, and other marginalized groups, that they shouldn’t be angry and that they shouldn’t be loud. Folks who have experienced oppression should be allowed to fully feel their emotions and express their opinions in their own ways, non-judgmentally. This post is for those folks who can and want to play the conflict mediator role and is not meant to suggest that alternative forms of conversation and trauma management are invalid, especially those of marginalized groups. I want to strongly encourage white allies in particular to engage in the type of work I describe.


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