My kids’ eyes flew wide open when they stepped into the living room last night and caught some of the fiasco (or you know, Dana Bash’s more colorful term) that passed for a presidential debate. This morning, our team discussed that while we’re exhausted by all the hate and division, maybe this is a good teaching moment for parents. It opens the door for us to teach our kids how to have a productive discussion.
You know, one that doesn’t involve bullying, screaming, talking over each other, or personal attacks.
Here, just a few really simple tips to share with your kids about having productive discussions that don’t devolve into arguing…or worse.
I really try to keep these things in mind when I’m having a disagreement with someone, and admittedly, it can be hard! Especially when someone pushes your buttons. (And people who know us best realllllly know how to push our buttons.) But it’s great to have some ideals to keep working toward when we want to discuss things productively; whether it’s you debating with your own kids about why no, they can’t hang out with their friends during a pandemic, or whether your own kids are arguing with each other. Again.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wisely said in 2015, Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.
How to have more productive debates and discussions: 8 simple tips
1. Attack the idea, not the person.
Life is not a presidential debate, and discussions shut down as soon as they get personal. Remind your kids that you can say, “no, I don’t think that Iron Man would beat Captain Marvel in a fight and here’s why…” as opposed to, “you’re ridiculous and you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Shorter: Don’t be mean.
2. Start sentences with “I” phrases, and don’t tell others what they think or feel.
When my kids are having conflict, I tell them to talk about how they are feeling, as opposed to characterizing someone else’s actions. Instead of “you think I’m an idiot,” say, “I feel like there’s a pattern of things you say that put me down and make me feel bad.”
Similarly, if you hear something racist, bigoted, crude, sexist, or otherwise unacceptable to you, you can say “I don’t like it when you use that word and I’d prefer you don’t use it again.” Or more strongly, “that word is not okay with me.”
It’s easy to be so caught up in thinking of the next thing we’re going to say, that we don’t actually hear the other person. Or uh, talk over them completely. If you can slow down and listen to what the other person is saying, you may learn something helpful. Or, you may find yourself asking for more clarity on a point (“wait, why do you think that?”) which also shows you are discussing in good faith.
4. Stay on topic.
Want your sibling to empty the dishwasher because you’ve done it the last three times? Avoid getting sidetracked into who Mom loves best and how it’s unfair that you have an earlier bedtime. And if you catch someone else doing this, redirect them back to the original topic at hand or you’ll never come to any resolution.
5. Be willing to concede a point.
If you say something mean or hurtful yourself — even if unintentionally — step back, own it, and apologize before you move on. Along those lines, conceding a fair point (“you’re right, I did do that and I’m sorry”) gives you leverage, and shows you can think about the subject thoughtfully and honestly.
6. Keep your goal in mind.
Related to staying on topic, keep your big-picture goal in mind. Sometimes we get so heated in the moment, we forget the point of the debate or discussion in the first place. Ever know someone who seems to argue just for the sake of arguing? Yeah, let’s not be that person.
So if your kid is trying to patching things up with their BFF? Don’t try to “win” on little points or rehash old issues, if the goal is conciliation.
7. If things get too heated, deescalate.
Matching energy is good for improv, but not for debates and discussions that are spiraling. If the other person starts yelling or raising their voice, stay calm and try to bring them down. It actually gives you the upper hand. Besides, it’s harder to think clearly the more flustered or upset you get.
8. It’s okay to step away if you have to…for now.
If things are really heated, can always say, ‘you know, this isn’t going anywhere right now. I’m going to take a break and we can come back and discuss it when things are less emotional.” The same goes double if it’s you who is getting too heated. Then, be sure you actually do come back to settle things.
There’s one caveat though: If someone is being abusive, you can absolutely walk away. Sometimes, unfortunately, that’s the best win you can hope for.