The countdown is on for the holiday season. As you gather with friends or family, chances are good that at some point you will encounter people who don't share your point of view about topics that you feel strongly about, such as politics, faith, raising children, immigration or you fill in the blank.
How will you handle these difficult conversations?
While emotion surrounds these topics, it is possible to have civil conversations about any one of these things with capacity to agree to disagree and remain friends or connected as family.
Some believe social media has contributed to the lack of civility in our conversations. You see it on social media all the time: "If you disagree with my views, just unfriend me now." Never mind the comments people make that are downright hate-filled. Perhaps because we don't have to look at each other face to face when we actually say the words, people feel very free to slam each other.
Our nation was built on the premise that not only do we have the freedom to have an opinion, we also have the freedom to express it. However, how you say something matters, and it is like trying to put toothpaste back into a tube once you have squeezed it out. You can apologize for saying ugly words in the heat of the moment, but it's basically impossible to take them back. The sting lingers.
Schools and other entities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on anti-bullying programs, yet children are watching their parents and other adults bully each other on a daily basis when they encounter people who don't think exactly like they do.
So what can we do to help create civil conversations?
First, remember that what you believe makes perfect sense to you, but other people have reasons for why they believe the way they do. Instead of shutting them down, ask questions to help you better understand why they believe the way they do. You may still walk away from the conversation shaking your head, but having a reasonable conversation may lead to better understanding on both sides of the fence. Many of these issues are not cut and dry; they are often deep and complicated.
Second, your words are like a construction site. You have the opportunity to be respectful and gracious regardless of the topic at hand. When children in the room watch you navigate a complicated conversation in a respectful way, you are teaching them. Whether you believe they are paying attention or not, they are more than likely taking in your words and your every move.
Third, if you demean, degrade and disrespect the person you are speaking with and then walk away from the relationship, they will have one less person in their life who has a different perspective that could elicit thought-provoking conversations.
Last, the hard reality is, we are all in charge of our own emotions, actions and behaviors. Even when people are disrespectful toward us, we can choose to respond in kind or to do something different. It absolutely takes two to tango, but it only takes one person to change the dance. If you refuse to escalate and meet like behavior with like behavior, it becomes a different kind of conversation.
In the end, we must figure out how to live civilly with people who don't think exactly like us.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.