5 Ways to Talk About Those Touchy Areas in Relationships
New research shows five strategies to overcome fear of touchy topics.
Posted December 24, 2019 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
You’re chatting with a family member at a celebration when the topic veers toward your nation’s politics. You know how this family member feels, so you’d rather not go there because those feelings are so radically different from your own.
If it’s an in-law or potential in-law, you worry that getting into a “friendly” debate could put your relationship to your partner in jeopardy. Perhaps you’re having your hair styled, and your stylist makes an off-the-cuff political comment indicating that you and the stylist do not see eye to eye at all. A co-worker may launch into a Twitter tirade that opposes your own personal views, yet the co-worker reads those tweets aloud for everyone’s entertainment. If it’s your boss who’s the source of the views that are so antithetical to your own, you worry about possible job repercussions.
Differences of opinion are inevitable in adult life. Expressing those opinions in the context of a situation that makes you uncomfortable has perhaps never been more challenging.
According to a December 2019 article by Stockton University’s Joy Jones-Carmack, you may be experiencing what she refers to as “political communication apprehension (PCA),” or “the fear or anxiety associated with real or anticipated communication about politics with another person or persons” (p. 73). Basing this concept on previous work defining communication apprehension in general (McCroskey, 1977), Jones-Carmack points out — when it comes to politics— people may feel this apprehension based on such factors as actual past experiences with unpleasant arguments, dissimilarity in views between communicators, whether the situation has an element of unpredictability, your own lack of knowledge about the topic, and the fear of real or imagined evaluation by the other person (that in-law or boss).
When it comes to online forums, PCA can easily be avoided if you just stay off of social media or don't follow people you know that differ radically from your own values. If the PCA involves face-to-face interactions, it’s much harder to find a way out, especially if you’re sitting next to someone for a prolonged period of time, such as a dinner table or office cubicle. Even that appointment with the stylist provides you with no easy escape, and you may worry that the ramifications could include a bad haircut.
Optimistically, Jones-Carmack suggests that if you can find the right communication strategy, there could be a positive outcome in that both you and your “opponent” could come to a new mutual understanding. If, for example, your PCA is due to lack of knowledge about an issue compared to your conversation partner, perhaps you can become better informed and gain a greater appreciation of the complexities of the issue. Whether it’s climate change or health care funding, topics you may have thought you understood, learning more of the facts can help you either bolster your own views or adopt a more nuanced understanding of them.
Another way to overcome PCA is to recognize the origins of the differences of opinion between you and your potential conversational opponents. Jones-Carmack notes that demographic factors play a strong role in producing people's own views. These demographic factors include their level of education and cultural background which can contribute to particular ideologies and values.
Additionally, the people whose views differ from your own could have experienced life events that have helped to form their current attitudes. That in-law of yours may have been denied insurance for a child’s medical condition, influencing the way they approach the controversial topic of health care.
Unfortunately, you may fail to consider these potentially ameliorating factors that could grease the social wheels of communication if you give in to what Jones-Carmack refers to as the “spiral of silence.” This occurs when you assume your views don’t conform to the majority opinions in the situation, so you don’t even raise the topic. In the process, you convince yourself that the other person sitting next to you will by definition disagree with you, further escalating your PCA.
To get out of this particular bind, you can overcome your hesitancy by testing the waters. As the Stockton University author points out, “the need to process beliefs, feelings, and thoughts is a natural part of human communication and relationship building” (p. 76). Whether in the workplace or in a less formal setting, this “ability to foster civil discourse and constructive dialogue” can allow all participants to overcome their PCA and find ways to build those all-important relationship ties.
Based on the PCA model, along with the spiral of silence theory, these are the five methods that may help you find a path to constructive dialogues in your own relationship:
- Accept the fact that you’re experiencing PCA. Knowing that this anxiety is reality-based can help you identify the source of your discomfort.
- Don’t assume you know what other people are thinking. To avoid the spiral of silence, gently state your own position and wait to see how the other person responds.
- Keep it personal. If your differences with the other individual stem from differences in demographic or ideological background, use your own experiences with the topic to explain how you feel.
- Listen and learn. You may not change your views, but see whether there are some facts that you’ve failed to take into account.
- Show that a values differences doesn’t have to be a relationship killer. You can state your opinions, when such debates arise, in a way intended to preserve positive feelings all around.
To sum up, although political polarization may be a general societal problem at the moment, it doesn’t have to polarize your relationships. Constructive dialogues take place in this political climate but also help lead to your personal fulfillment in the key relationships in your life.
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Jones, C. J. (2019). Political communication apprehension: Toward productive political discourse online and face‐to‐face. Journal of Leadership Studies. doi:10.1002/jls.21656
McCroskey, J.C. (1977). Oral communication apprehension: A summary of recent theory and research. Communication Quarterly, 40, 16-25.