Ground Rules for Talking About Controversial Topics

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Talking about controversial topics has become a daunting task. There are some things we can do, individually and collectively, to improve those difficult conversations. The important points below may be useful to review as ground rules for discussing potentially emotionally charged issues:

CHARACTER

  • Agree on the values that are important to honor. Stay centered in that list of ethical values, not the opinions and wants of each “side” 

TEMPERAMENT

  • Follow ground rules that include mutual respect, listening and avoidance of blaming, labeling or attacking

JUDGMENT

  • Use good thinking, actively questioning your own assumptions, biases, and motives

INCLUSION

  • Consider all humans equally important with equal rights

CARE

  • Demonstrate care for all others involved in the conversation, and really listen to what they think is important

CONSTITUENT – AWARENESS

  • Consider the full impact on all constituents, paying special attention to those constituents not represented in the conversation

LONG-TERM IMPACT

  • Think about the long-term impact of decisions, in addition to the short-term benefits

EXPLORING MULTIPLE VARIABLES

  • Avoid oversimplifying issues by exploring many different variables related to the issue 

USING A SYSTEMS APPROACH

  • Move beyond simple cause-and-effect thinking when discussion solutions. Think about the issue in terms of how it fits into bigger systems, and how other variables beyond those in the conversation can impact outcomes

Are you able to keep conversations civil and productive? Share your tips in a comment below!

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About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

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