Posted: October 24, 2022

Politely Discussing Controversial Issues

Quan Nguyen is 35 years old and the program administrator of Choose Well San Diego, a program that helps families find assisted living homes. He interacts with older adults both at work and during community service projects. One issue he has been encountering more frequently are politically charged discussions among older adults in congregate living, senior centers, and social clubs. The adage “avoid talking about controversial issues” is all but impossible to follow now with political polarization seemingly interwoven into everything we say or do. With holiday gatherings around the corner, there will be mixing and mingling of multiple generations forming a wide range of beliefs and ideas. Knowing how to have an intelligent, appropriate discussion will make festivities enjoyable, bring people closer together, and prevent animosity and hard feelings among guests that last long after the holidays.

Facilitating a two-way dialogue is an effective way to keep a conversation civil, according to Nguyen. He often fields calls from residents asking for help with issues related to their care. Sometimes, residents or the families feel very strongly that they are being treated unfairly or neglected and, if allowed, will go into exhaustive detail and, often, unrelated tangents to support their claim. Instead of letting them continue a one-sided conversation, Nguyen will strategically interject facts and relevant codes and regulations to give them proper context and understanding of a facility's responsibilities and limitations in providing their care. This will help them set realistic expectations of outcomes and better prepare them for more productive future meetings with an Ombudsman, or facility management. 

Nguyen recalls another time when he was helping a social club when one older adult member started raising his voice and brandishing his walking cane because he was upset that someone had put up a pride flag in the activity room. Nguyen observed that the person he was talking to, or rather screaming at, was no longer engaging in conversation, and was also getting upset. To try to calm the situation, Nguyen looked for a common goal of the disagreeing group. One common goal was to increase the members in their social club. He suggested that presenting the club as open and inclusive would be more conducive to increasing club membership. Furthermore, the pride flag had belonged to a church that was renting the building. Once the passions subsided, it allowed the quieter gentleman to engage in the conversation and he suggested that the church only display it when they were using the activity room, instead of all the time. The rest of the evening went smoothly. Finding common goals can be an effective strategy to allow everyone to participate in a discussion, even if it is controversial. 

Younger generations may have political or religious views that clash with their more conservative leaning parents or grandparents. Nguyen believes that older adults have valuable insights to share with the next generation. Family members of all ages and viewpoints can come together to share their perspectives through memorable conversations. Putting context around one’s opinion can help others see how one arrived at such a conclusion and further mitigate the perception that they are trying to preach a universal truth applicable to everyone. Nguyen recalls a conversation last year at a Christmas party over gun control between an older and younger person that gradually escalated. The younger gentleman had become quite irritated by the older man’s anti-gun stance. The younger person kept trying to convince him why he was “right” (something that should also be avoided), which only served to upset both parties whose position on the matter has long been cemented. The situation only diffused when the older man explained that he was against gun ownership because he was a Vietnam veteran and saw the catastrophic damage firearms can do. By providing context, he limited the scope of his opinion to his personal experience rather than forcing someone to accept his perspective. This gives others latitude to share their own perspective as well.

A deep, substantial conversation can strengthen connections between people of different ages and backgrounds. These types of conversations can promote healthy bonding by building fond memories that last long after the last guest has departed. Using strategies such as facilitation, finding common ground, and providing additional context can be helpful in typically polarizing discussions. Even if the topic is controversial, sharing opinions in a manner that lets people feel safe expressing their own views allows everyone to participate in important discussions with confidence.

Above: Quan Nguyen at a social event with older adults.