Culture & Conversation Sexual Health

You’re Not Out of the Woods Yet: Advocates Share Tips for Hard Conversations

Hannah Sheehan

Because 'tis the season. And who better to help than reproductive rights and justice thinkers who regularly fight alternative facts?

Thanksgiving is over, but the holiday season is notorious for uncomfortable conversations about politics, sexuality, and reproductive rights. While respectful political debates between friends and family members were often hard to come by before the Trump administration took office, the ever-increasing prevalence of alternative facts and politicized misinformation can make genuinely productive discussions nearly impossible. For many of us, these are uncharted waters.

But advocates for reproductive rights and justice have been battling fake news for decades and are key experts in navigating troubled waters.

Rewire spoke to nearly a dozen health-care practitioners, reproductive justice activists, and sexuality educators about their strategies for encouraging open dialogue about potentially polarizing topics. Their knowledge and experience can help laypeople initiate or take part in fruitful conversations about sexuality, contraception, and abortion—or talk over controversial issues beyond reproductive health.

Here are some of their time-tested tricks and tips, which can be deployed during almost any difficult discussion.

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Set the Tone

If you suspect that a specific issue is likely to spark conflict, be clear about how you want to approach it. Create comfortable parameters at the outset of your talk by deciding which topics are off-limits, or by crafting an informal community agreement before embarking on an especially challenging conversation.

According to Boston-based sex educator and therapist Aida Manduley, normalizing not knowing something is a crucial step toward establishing a nonthreatening environment and fostering mutual understanding. They suggested correcting misconceptions with simple phrases such as “A lot of people actually don’t know this, but…”  or “I just learned this recently.” It’s a technique Manduley frequently employs while leading training workshops on transgender health care for medical providers.

“People don’t like to feel dumb. People don’t like to feel like they are at a loss, especially if they’re in a position of power,” Manduley explained. “If someone already has a lot of cultural cache or social standing, it can be hard to listen.”

Be Prepared to Meet People Where They Are

Chanel Jaali Marshall—a Washington, D.C.-based HIV and AIDs activist and founder of the Jaali Company adult sexuality education group—believes that being open-minded and prepared to meet people on their level can start off a tough conversation on the right foot.

“You have to consider people’s culture, you have to consider religious factors, you have to consider all these things,” she said. “Just be aware that everyone is not the same.”

Julie Metzger, a registered nurse who lectures on puberty and human sexuality to preteens and their families with her Seattle-based company Great Conversations, emphasized the importance of tailoring your remarks to your audience. And that includes taking age and knowledge into account. An 18-year-old won’t process information the same way as a 40-year-old.

“When you honor the developmental states of the audience, you gain their trust by keeping it safe,” she said. “That is a powerful and important thing to do.”

New Orleans-based sexuality educator and founder of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN) Bianca Laureano avoids unnecessary miscommunication by assessing her students’ level of media literacy. She often invites people to explain how they seek out information and attempt to confirm the veracity of their facts.

“A lot of people don’t know what it means to go to the Library of Congress website and get a citation,” she said. Asking people to back up their beliefs and vouch for their sources raises awareness that all websites or facts aren’t the same or to be trusted equally.

Acknowledge Emotion

“You can’t talk to people about feelings with facts,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the president and chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which was the lead plaintiff in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down two provisions in a Texas law regulating abortion providers.

“I’ve found that people are sometimes more open to hearing the actual data and the facts if the conflict and the feelings part is acknowledged in the process,” Hagstrom Miller explained, adding that she’s usually able to stop emotions from hijacking a talk by briefly mentioning the potential for strong feelings to hinder constructive conversations.

Address Stigma Upfront

St. Louis-based sex educator, reproductive rights advocate, and sex shop manager Cicely Paine cautions ambitious communicators to remember that the specter of social stigma frequently haunts discussions of taboo subjects like human sexuality and pleasure.

She said that reframing issues related to sex and sexuality around health care and self-care can often dispel shame and allow for more productive conversations. Her favored tactic with nervous customers at her adult gift shop involves “just being super intentional about it.”

“They know that they want something that’s in there, but there’s so much internalized stuff, that they don’t even know what to say or how to say it,” she said.

Paine makes sure to let customers know that she’s open to hearing what they’re thinking and feeling, and often explicitly tells them that they’re going to get through this together.

Find Common Ground

In her former work as a sexuality education specialist at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, Paine learned to look for overlapping values and goals while speaking with parents of teenagers.

“Their values around teen sexuality [are often] ‘I don’t want my kid to have sex,’” Paine explained, adding that she was frequently able to reframe conversations with hesitant parents by searching for common ground and identifying shared aims.

As she often put it to uneasy parents, “We want your kid to be safe and healthy, so what ways can we both work around that idea, even though we might have different values and perspectives in how we see what health and safety looks like for young people?”

Share Quality Information

Hagstrom Miller of Whole Woman’s Health said access to accurate, nonpartisan information goes a long way toward building bridges.

“I think people have learned to be very skeptical of both the anti-abortion movement and the pro-choice movement because they always feel like someone’s trying to lobby them,” Hagstrom Miller said.

She’s found that even a simple, straightforward timeline of recent restrictions to abortion access has the capacity to astonish audiences.

Know That Identity and Bias Affect Listening

Remembering that society often undervalues the knowledge and experiences of marginalized communities and women is also key, Hagstrom Miller explained, adding that abortion opponents often exploit this unfortunate reality to inhibit reproductive choice.

“I think that we have just such a fundamental disrespect and skepticism of women’s knowledge and authority and abilities in our country. It’s just ingrained in us as humans, even those of us who are feminists, I think sometimes, if we really examine our behavior,” she said.

Use Humor

Comedian and co-founder of Lady Parts Justice League Lizz Winstead believes humor can open up conversations and break down barriers by pushing the envelope in terms of what constitutes acceptable topics of conversation. That’s the philosophy that guides her comedy group, which has drawn attention to fake abortion clinics and helped destigmatize emergency contraception through their sharply funny YouTube videos.

Winstead said she’s also learned to use comedy to move audiences to action instead of simply stoking their anger. She designed a recent Lady Parts Justice League live comedy tour to direct volunteers to organizations that need their help.

“Oftentimes, the humor can get people in the tent, get them excited, get them educated, and then the actual conversation needs to happen with them about what are we going to do now,” Winstead said.

Push Back

Listen carefully to opposing points of view, but don’t be a doormat, the experts warned. Ask your loved ones to explain their thinking and speak up if facts or statistics seem suspicious. Point out logical inconsistencies, and don’t let misleading comments slide.

Connecticut-based sexologist, educator, and Widener University doctoral candidate Cindy Lee Alves suggested pushing back against lazy stereotypes and unfounded generalizations about marginalized populations by centering the oppressed, while pushing socially privileged people to speak from their own observations.

“I try to get people to be able to voice what they want to voice, but have it come from a place of their experience,” she said.

Be Mindful of Body Language

Dr. Barbara Levy, who serves as the vice president of health policy for the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommended using your body language and eye contact to communicate an atmosphere of openness and equality.

“In order to read my patient, I’ve got to be looking at her. I have to be looking at her face and interpreting her body language,” Dr. Levy said. The same goes for friends and family members.

Dr. Sandra Carson, ACOG’s vice president of education, witnessed the importance of body language firsthand as a professor at Brown University, where she started an improvisational acting class for medical students. A local theater group taught future doctors nonverbal communication through pantomiming exercises.

“The lesson that we took home from that was when you’re communicating with patients, you want to open up when topics come up that are open and close your body language when it’s a very serious topic to stress the importance, and the patient will mimic those actions if she’s understanding you,” Dr. Carson said.

Take a Break

WOCSHN’s Laureano noted that if she’s speaking to someone who’s becoming visibly upset, she frequently pauses the conversation. She’ll ask if they’re open to taking a breath together to reset the moment and keep the conversation going.

“I also think about safety, not just for myself, but for everyone else in the space,” Laureano said.

Create a Habit of Inclusivity

Don’t throw sex workers or marginalized communities under the bus by relying on arguments that run contrary to your values, the experts cautioned. Comedian Winstead warns against using stigmatizing language or ideas to make short-term gains with people who disagree with your politics, citing the pervasive tendency to demonize abortion, even among pro-choice advocates.

“We’ve allowed so many tropes to come from the right, and we’ve allowed their language to be the language and a lot of that is really shaming,” she said.

Alves, the Connecticut-based sexologist, recommended taking a proactive approach by creating a habit of inclusivity with your words, even if you don’t think it’ll matter to anyone in the room. Alves says that’s why she insists on asking all of her students to share their pronouns.

“I want to honor how you want to be addressed, and I’m not going to assume your gender based on what I’m looking at,” Alves said. Even when she’s talking to people who aren’t aware of using gender-inclusive language, she does so anyway and uses the opportunity to “bring up the fact that [being unaware] is a privilege.”

Never Stop Learning

Resist the temptation to rest on your laurels. Keep learning and challenging yourself to communicate more effectively, said Great Conversations’ Metzger. She’s currently updating her course’s approach to discussing gender identity after decades of groundbreaking educational work with preteens and their families.

“We learn all the time from the people who come, so we’ve been really challenged and excited,” Metzger said. “It’s about honing your language” and seeing every conversation as an opportunity to grow.

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