Ask dinner party guests the biggest cliche of topics to steer clear of, and of course they will answer religion, politics, or money. Ask teachers why they shy away from controversial topics in the class, and they’ll answer that conversations can get too heated, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Some bloggers and writers even make it their personal mission to avoid these topics so they don’t offend any current or potential readers. I’ve been thinking about this, and I adamantly disagree with the notion that we should avoid controversy. Instead, I think we SHOULD discuss controversial topics because the more we talk about it, the more we learn how to have productive conversations instead of stubborn showdowns.

We need to learn the tools to participate in these conversations; we need to push ourselves to be educated on these topics instead of clinging onto unfounded, obstinate opinions; we need to learn to open our minds and hearts to hearing other points of views, practice thoughtful consideration, and tactful responses to disagreements.

Why You Shouldn’t Avoid Controversy

The problem with avoiding controversy

By staying away from controversial topics, we say that we don’t trust ourselves or others to hold an intelligent, productive conversation. The thing is, I understand why people avoid it; I have been a part of various conversations that escalate to such negative, unproductive, ugly places that it doesn’t even feel worth it. Members of the “conversation” aren’t actually discussing – they know their talking points and stick to them tenaciously. Controversial means “marked by or capable of arousing disagreement.” Why do we disagree about things? Because they are important! Instead of seeing controversy in a negative light, we need to embrace the opportunity to hold these important discussions. We take for granted everyday that we have unlimited access to news and education. We take for granted that we have the right and ability to freely discuss any topic. Let’s expand our minds, open our ears, and trust ourselves to be intelligent members of a conversation, shall we?

Controversy helps us learn

Controversy can be a useful, powerful, and memorable tool to promote learning. As Hamlet said, “What is a man/ If his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed?” Basically, if all we do is eat, sleep, and go through the motions on a surface level, what is the point? Research shows that controversial discussion can promote cognitive advances in complex reasoning, thinking, and decision-making. You need these skills no matter who you are: as a student, in the workplace, as a parent, and really anywhere in your daily lives. Stretch yourself, possibly out of your comfort zone, to practice these high-level skills.

Discussion best practices

You are an independent thinker: challenge yourself, your beliefs, and what society tells you. Open your mind and pause and think before speaking. Ask yourself why you hold certain beliefs and opinions. Really dig deep – where does it come from? Are you following a belief because it’s how you were raised? Do you believe in something because it’s simply tradition? Do you hold opinions out of fear without truly educating yourself unbiasedly? When questioned about your belief, do you feel attacked and answer, ‘that’s how I feel, and I have a right to feel this way’? Chances are you will benefit from this interpersonal pondering.

Opposing views: when someone thinks differently than you, listen to why they hold those views. Do not attack them. Listen carefully to the other point of view, and ask questions. Even if you do not agree, if you can restate or argue for that position, you have actively listened, so kudos to you. Different doesn’t mean better or worse, it just means different. My high school speech teacher told me this, and I always liked it. It wasn’t until I went to college, became an independent thinker, and matured a bit that I understood the true value and beauty of that quote.

Explore other possibilities: we like to hold onto beliefs or traditions, often to a fault. Put stubbornness aside and expand your mind in the quest for learning and deeper understanding. There is value in knowing what you don’t know; explore what you don’t know and set new learning goals. When I started doing this, it was a little scary at first, but it is also so freeing to follow your own mind and heart, even in the face of opposition, such as choosing to keep my name after marriage.

Exercise tact and grace: controversy has a way of taking even the most mild, polite, tactful person and turning him or her into a truly dreadful, nasty troll (not the cute kind with a jeweled belly button and pastel hair). Exercise your unique powers that come with being a human, and do not shut down and turn foul in the face of opposition. You are smarter and far more lovely than that. Prove it.

“You can’t argue with stupid”: while I don’t like using the word ‘stupid’ to describe someone, I do believe in this saying. If someone is unwilling to participate in a controversial discussion in an engaging, intelligent, calm, and respectful way, you can’t really argue with them. You can suggest ways they can learn about the topic and encourage them to read this blog post, but ultimately there are some people who are not ready or willing to look inside themselves and understand and question their values. At that point, retain your dignity and respect, and politely redirect the discussion.

How do you deal with controversial topics that go awry? Are you comfortable discussion controversy?