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How to discuss topics that are emotionally loaded?

by vin1 min read2nd Feb 20216 comments

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In the EA context, I often experience difficulties in discussions about emotionally loaded topics. The following examples are real situations I have been in or been told about, in some cases modified for understandability.

Example 1 - Gender Interest Differences:

There is a discussion in the EA local group about gender interest differences. Bob quotes Scott Alexander making the point that "women tend to be interested in people-ish topics" and "men tend to be interested in system-ish topics". Being a woman in tech and very interested in "systems", Alice gets a little afraid that the others might not see her as a "true woman". She is irritated at herself because this is silly, but she still feels a bit angry and compelled to argue against this "system vs people" distinction.

Example 2 - Privacy:

Bob wants to switch to a communication channel that is encrypted and open source, because he wants to discuss a privacy-sensitive topic, e.g. medical conditions with Alice. Alice thinks that is unnecessary, and Bob doesn't feel like having a discussion with Alice, because the topic feels really uncomfortable to him.

Example 3 - Pronouns:

Bob uses "he/him" pronouns, when referring to a person of unspecified gender. Being the only woman in the group, Alice feels somewhat excluded. When she says she would prefer that he use the "they/them"-equivalent of German, he responds with some thoughtful arguments about why he thinks this is not worth the inconvenience (the inconvenience is higher in the German language than in English.) The two of them start a discussion, but Alice feels really uncomfortable discussing the topic. She wishes Bob could just take her "It makes me feel more comfortable" as being reason enough.

Example 4 - Caring about Animals :

There is a discussion in the EA local group about veganism. Alice makes the point, that being vegan is likely of net-negative impact, because refraining from eating meat has a negligible impact compared to a donation to ACE's top charities, and because of moral licensing being vegan makes you donate less in expectation.

Bob loves animals and has been vegan for many years. He notices that he gets angry that Alice argues that way, even if he can't pinpoint, why he thinks she is wrong. He wishes that Alice would just go with "These were animals once. With experiences. So eating meat is obviously wrong".
 

What do you do in such situations?

It's not like Alice or Bob actually believe in an epistemic sense that some line of the other's argument is wrong. Rather, the other's argument makes them feel uncomfortable, because it is in some way related to something personal.

So, I'm wondering

  • Have you run into this issue? What are topics that were sensitive for you or someone you know?
  • How can I have a good discussion, even when I am emotionally upset by a topic? Should I even try to have this discussion, or is it better for everyone if I just avoid these topics?
  • How should I behave if I notice that other people are emotionally upset by a topic?

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3 Answers

It's not like Alice or Bob actually believe in an epistemic sense that some line of the other's argument is wrong. Rather, the other's argument makes them feel uncomfortable, because it is in some way related to something personal.

I think that in many situations which pattern match to these, this is Bob's view of the situation but not Alice's, which contributes to the situation. Bob thinks that Alice only disagrees because she is upset, and so doesn't actually consider her point of view seriously. Alice then finds the discussion difficult not only because the topic is upsetting, but also because she is very clearly not actually being listened to. Given how much more difficult Alice finds the discussion than Bob, she will likely not express the points she's trying to make as fluently or eloquently as Bob argues his side, adding to her frustration and strengthening Bob's view that he's right and she's just too emotional to see it.

You switched Bob and Alice between examples but I think the point is clear. As one concrete example, Example 4's Bob may not be a consequentialist, or he may feel that under moral uncertainty it's worth taking rights-based arguments extremely seriously even if otherwise acting as a utilitarian most of the time.

Ironically, I felt somewhat upset reading OP, I think for the reason you point out. (No criticism towards OP, I was actually amused at myself when I noticed)

I think some reason-specific heterogeneity in how easily something is expressible/norms in your society also play a role:

  1. I think some reasons are just inherently fuzzier (or harder to crisply grasp), e.g. why certain language makes you feel excluded. (It's really hard to point at a concrete damage (or in summer circles, something that can't be countered with "that's not how it's meant [, but if you want to be sensitive, we can accommodate that].")) I think that's double troubling because the other person often takes you less seriously and because you might take yourself less seriously. I think at least I'm more prone to be emotional when I feel like my reasons are of this type, and maybe that's similar for others?
  2. some kinds of reasoning are more socially excepted in different circles. E.g. In some EA circles, I imagine the "anti"-vegan argument would be associated with higher social status, and in some EA circles it would be the other way around. At least in my case, I'm more prone to be emotional when I feel like I have the
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3vin1moThat's a good point, that the upset person in the conversation might be prone to be taken less seriously, even by themselves, especially if their reasons are hard-to-describe, but not necessarily wrong. Looking back at theses situations through this lens, I actually think at one point I didn't take myself seriously enough. If my reasons are fuzzy, and I'm upset, it is tempting to conclude that I'm just being silly. A better framing is to view negative emotions as a kind of pointer, that says "Hey, in this topic there is still some unresolved issue. There may actually be a good reason why I have this emotion. Let's investigate where it comes from." For the non-offended person, I think it already helps a lot to have the possibility in the back of you mind, that a topic may be emotional. For example, many people aren't aware that privacy is a topic that can be emotional for people.

I tweeted about this, and it ended up being a much longer thread than I had originally intended. It's quite critical of the passage I quoted above so, though this is not intended as an attack on the OP but instead an extrapolation to a broader point, I thought it was best to flag that I had done so, as I didn't want this to unintentionally be  a "subtweet".

 

Thanks for writing about this, I sometimes find myself in similar situations to your examples and feel unsure how to deal with it best.

I just read Cullen‘s post about psychological harm and thought I‘d mention it here because I think it explains part of why I sometimes experience less patience than usual when it comes to psychological harm that seems partially induced by ideological origins. https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/FpMjQWaNvcPKPuhXQ/blameworthiness-for-avoidable-psychological-harms

So I wrote some practical advice below. 

I think the author of the post seems pretty thoughtful and sophisticated, so maybe this is too basic or not what they want. 

But it is hard to be informative as there is a lot going on in possible answer:

  • Are Bob and Alice friends or just acquaintances?
  • Are they discussing views, or are they working on a project together?
  • What are the power dynamics between the two?
  • Are they communicating 1on1, or is there a performative aspect, e.g. Alice or Bob's opinion is dominating a group discussion?

I think Example 4 seems tough, and I'll give one way I would approach this. 

Example 4 - Caring about Animals:

Bob loves animals and has been vegan for many years. He notices that he gets angry that Alice argues that way, even if he can't pinpoint, why he thinks she is wrong. He wishes that Alice would just go with "These were animals once. With experiences. So eating meat is obviously wrong".

I think it is important to avoid conflicts, confrontation or enforcing views about improving animal welfare with people in animal welfare.

There is a long history of conflict between approaches or viewpoints in animal welfare movements, which is wasteful. 

I think animal suffering is so abhorrent that it makes many points of view reasonable. Alice's "rationality" viewpoint can effect change, and Bob's "emotional" viewpoint is understandable if you take animal sentience seriously.

Maybe use a preamble? 

I think one way to begin any emotionally difficult presentation of a strong view is to use a preamble that genuinely accepts the opposing viewpoint before making your own point. 

For Alice, she could say:

"I think that animals are sentient. They have souls. I know Bob knows this.

"I want to talk about [ content such as impact] because I think it can make a bigger impact for these animals, this is...[ begin content ]"

Some comments: 

  • I don't think the example here is perfect. But even this simple preamble as long as it's genuine, seems to help a lot in difficult conversations. Saying something like this is easy once you practice it a few times. Because it's easy to say you can do it under emotional strain.
  • When things are really emotional, using informal language, and directly addressing the person are good strategies if it can be done naturally and genuinely. In the example, it tries to finds common ground (helping animals) and specifically acknowledges what Bob wants or feels.
  • When things are difficult, saying that you are upset explicitly due to the immediate circumstance often works well, and senior and powerful people do this.  You can say, "Look, this is an emotional subject for me and I'm upset about it. Now...[begin preamble]". It's still important to preserve gravitas and decorum, so be brief and state this unemotionally.  It's sometimes OK to be more defensive, and weaken the emotional aspects and use formal words you wouldn't normally say: "I find this untoward and problematic...".

It's possible that giving a preamble or communicating is not practical. For example, you may not even get a chance to make a long comment. 

If this is the case, or if both Alice and Bob are highly emotional, the conversation probably is not going to work and it's better not to do this. 

If there's resentment from past actions or a sense of underhandedness by either party, this makes a preamble or any communication difficult. In these cases I find resolving the issues as a whole impractical, and it's not going to work.

Not everything works, it's OK. You can walk away, or there's other approaches you can take.

I think modesty goes a long way here. This is both in not enforcing your views onto others unless necessary, and also accepting views. 

There's a lot of emotional labor and empathy involved. Your energy is a limited resource. You don't have to do this or other efforts if the other person isn't listening or simply doesn't get it.