Navigating Difficult Topics Helps Us Move Forward, Together
There is no denying that feminism is a huge and somewhat controversial topic. The word itself shuts some doors and opens others. For those who don’t readily identify as feminist it conjures images of braless women, passionate protestors, rebel rousers fighting against the man. Some of these are sometimes true.
For those of us who proudly embrace the label, it stands for systemic change, equal opportunities, empowerment of anyone anywhere to fulfill his or her potential. Some of these, too, are sometimes true. So then, how do you bridge the divide, reach across the aisle, and talk about something as sensitive as feminism with those you care about most?
Talking about feminism need not be any different from all of the other hard conversations we have with the ones we love. Each is generally characterized by intense conviction, hard lines, and proud egos. Navigating these difficult topics—especially those around which we wrap so much of our own identities—can be intimidating but it is also the only way to move forward, together. A few simple communication tricks can help to defuse our own fiery passion without compromising any principles. At worst, you’ll learn something about your friends and family, at best you make some headway and help share the feminist values and frameworks which will drive this world toward justice.
1. Broaden Your Definition
Regardless of your own personal definition, consider broadening the perspective from which you’re approaching the conversation. Accept that your family will have their own definitions. Recognize that your conservative and deeply religious grandmother may never join you in a pro-choice rally. And that’s okay. But could you change her mind about the choices you make for your own health? Maybe.
When we can broaden our definition of feminism to reach beyond womanhood and extend to notions of empowerment, justice, and inclusion we can find a way to connect the conversation to nearly anyone.
2. Find Common Ground
When you look at life through a broad feminist lens, you see how nearly every issue you care deeply about is impacted. Politics. Careers. Education. Health. Families. Each of these topics can be considered through a feminist framework, presenting many points of entry for your conversation. Bending toward traction requires finding common ground.
Start with something your loved ones care about, a smaller topic you can consider together through a feminist lens. If family is their soft spot, start there. If they’ve made a career in healthcare, consider that. There’s no need to tackle the big capital-F Feminism all in one sitting. Start small.
3. Ask Questions
The easiest place to start in any conversation—be it cocktail schmoozing or political sparring—is with questions. You need to gather information. Every question they answer, and every insight you gain becomes fodder with which to make your points later on. Ask about what they believe, how those beliefs took shape, what experiences they’ve had, etc.
In their answers to each question, you can start to gain insight into why they believe what they do. Those are the motives that are stacked against you in this conversation, so you need to know as much about them as you possibly can. As in any interesting conversation, each answer should ignite more follow up. Slowly you might be able to leverage the questions themselves as ways to not only gain information but also challenge their perspective. Shift from questions of curiosity such as “Why do you feel this way?” to questions of imagination such as “Can you see how….?” In their answers you can start to see a complete picture of their perspective. You can start to see the ways in which their values are shaped. Therein lies the map you can use to successfully present a different worldview.
4. Affirm What You Hear
One conversation will rarely change a moral compass. Nobody likes being wrong, especially on issues of such significance. Traction takes time, and patience is paramount to helping people from opposing systems (political, moral, or otherwise) change their minds.
Periodically throughout conversation it’s critical to affirm that you are hearing what they are saying, even if you don’t agree with it. Simple statements of “I hear you, and…” can be powerful ways to model what it is you want from them in return. Validate their perspectives, however small, when you find anything you can agree with. Moving toward common understanding is a dance of give and take. Give what validation you can as you keep pulling toward the principles from which you won’t waiver.
5. Make a Personal Appeal
Talking about feminism—an issue of both political and social significance—can feel abstract and inconsequential, especially if your family has never been wronged by the system. So make it personal. Be brave. Reveal your own vulnerabilities, and help them see through your own stories the ways in which your life has been impacted.
Storytelling is among the quickest ways to build empathy. The shapes and forms of stories actually reflect the ways our brains process information, making them a powerful and often underutilized form of communication. Use your own stories to help them see why this matters to you, help them build empathy for your experience even if they haven’t had their own from which to learn. And when your stories run out, and they still aren’t convinced, help them imagine what feminism means to their daughters, mothers, and wives. And to them. Male or female, we are all impacted by a system that disempowers some more disproportionally than others. Help them see the ways in which sexism—be it in the form of glass ceilings, abortion policies, etc—could forever alter the course of their life or the life of someone they love.
Remember, great change comes from small steps—and a lot of patience. Here are ten guiding steps to a successful conversation with a loved one whom you don't always see eye-to-eye with:
Ten Steps to Tackling Controversial Conversations with Ones We Love
Broaden your definition of the issue
Be truly open to their ideas
Find something you both care about
Point toward sources they trust
Ask questions to better understand
Affirm what you hear
Agree when you can
Ask more questions
Make it personal
Be patient and kind
Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One K Creative. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.