As families and friends gather for the holidays, a Virginia Tech expert offers tips for dinner-table conversations around contentious issues.
“Holidays are often a special time to catch up with family and friends, but things can turn sour when you and Uncle Joe come to blows around an issue like climate change,” said Todd Schenk, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs. “How can he be so blind to the climate catastrophes unfolding around the world? Since when did you become a brainwashed hippie?”
Schenk suggests not avoiding these types of issues with friends and family, but rather finding the time and space to engage in productive dialogue around them.
"This time of year serves as an opportunity to appreciate each other's humanity, even when we disagree,” says Schenk. “We should not avoid tough discussions, because if we want to be truly understood and advance our causes, we have to connect with people very different than ourselves.”
“Avoiding contentious issues like climate change is one strategy, but is not always possible or even desirable,” Schenk said. “It is typically healthier to find ways to have more respectful dialogue, and we can often learn in the process.”
Schenk said one effective technique is active listening, “which calls on us to really listen, asking probing questions to dig deeper into our counterparts’ perspectives and confirm that we understand what they are saying. This is not a passive process of simply waiting our turn, and then delivering our monologue when we have the chance.”
“Active listening does not ask us to change our minds, although that can happen, but rather to remain respectful, open and willing to increase empathy and understanding,” Schenk said. “Ultimately, active listening can be good for us too, insofar as we want to persuade someone to do or believe something different. We rarely convince others by belittling them or by sharing our facts alone. We persuade by meeting people were they are and connecting their values to what we want them to do or believe”.

About Schenk

Schenk is an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He has extensive research and consulting experience working on collaborative governance and environmental policy and planning issues. 

View Schenk's full bio here.

Schedule an interview

To secure an interview, email Jordan Fifer in the Media Relations office or call (540) 231-6997.

Our studio

Virginia Tech's television and radio studio can broadcast live HD audio and video to networks, news agencies, and affiliates interviewing Virginia Tech faculty, students, and staff. The university does not charge for use of its studio. Video is transmitted by LTN Global Communications and fees may apply. Broadcast quality audio for radio is transmitted via ISDN.