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Disagree with relatives this Thanksgiving? Here’s the best way to argue, prof says

Professor touts ‘respectful interrogation’ concept ahead of Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving draws near, one professor is promoting a concept called “respectful interrogation,” encouraging people to be “frenemies” this holiday and efficiently navigate the conversational tensions that often accompany the festivities.

Dr. Todd Schenk, a professor of public and international affairs at Virginia Tech, offers insight on defusing tensions by conversing in a respectful way that focuses on being an active listener rather than an active speaker.

“With Thanksgiving upon us, many students (and others) are likely to find themselves in the company of family and friends that they have fundamental disagreements with,” Schenk told The College Fix in an recent email.

He said as a first step, people should “really listen, asking probing questions to dig deeper into our counterparts’ perspectives, and confirm that we understand what they are saying.”

Last year as part of a research project he launched “Frenemies Day 2016” after the divisive election to encourage respectful dialogue and then have people share those stories on social media.

“Engage in a respectful yet probing conversation, ideally face to face, that reminds you and your counterpart of your shared humanity beyond your very real, and valid, disagreements,” he said on his Frenemies website.

The same idea can be applied to Thanksgiving conversations.

Schenk, on this website, advocates setting ground rules prior to conversations. He suggests tactics like suspending judgment, not making assumptions or interrupting, being open-minded, using thoughtful language, and striving to understand and inform rather than persuade.

“It behoves us to engage with those we fundamentally disagree with,” he told The Fix.

Although these conversations can be intimidating and occasionally unpleasant, they help to create greater understanding, he added.

“Sometimes avoiding hot-button issues can be the (appropriate) path of least resistance, but in other cases they are unavoidable, or a conversation can be productive and enlightening,” he said.

Progress cannot be made if people are incapable of discussing matters in a peaceable way, and critical aspects of fruitful discussions are active listening and “respectful interrogation.”

On his personal website, Schenk explains further that respectful interrogation means “being respectful of our counterparts, avoiding recrimination, assumptions, and vitriol, while probing to understand and challenge each other.”

Inappropriate language is listed as: Don’t you care about me? Why don’t you just go home/change/be reasonable?

Appropriate language includes phrases such as: Where do your views come from? Have you ever had a friend that is ___ like me? What would you do about ____?

“No one should be compelled to defend their fundamental rights or identities,” Schenk said in his email to The Fix. “But, there are surely opportunities for more civil conversation around many of the sticky issues communities are currently grappling with.”

“I think we typically find that other people have more respect for us, and are more likely to reciprocate in actually listening, if we do employ some of these tactics,” he added. “I am currently setting up an experiment to more rigorously test this though.”

IMAGE: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Haley Toy is a sophomore at Palomar College, working toward a bachelor's degree in English. She feels very blessed by the opportunity to write for The College Fix and hopes to pursue a career in journalism.

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