Having conversations with friends and family about Ukraine

A guide to dialogue.
Is there a way to have real conversations with people who matter to us but have different views on Ukraine?
Russian version here
What's happening right now in Ukraine is an incalculable human tragedy. Hundreds of people have died or have been wounded, and over a million have been forced to leave their homes.

Inside Russia, there are informational ecosystems that leave family members, coworkers or friends believing entirely different sets of "facts." Because the stakes are so high, and because so many of us feel scared and threatened by the news, this makes it even harder to reach out to the people we care about when they believe something fundamentally different than we do.

While dialogue with the other side is never obligatory, if you are looking for ways to have conversations then here are some suggestions you may find helpful.

Before having a conversation:

Listen to your body
Experiences like these don't just affect our minds – they affect our bodies. Anger and frustration can be powerful motivations for change, but they can also lead to bias and hatred. This is normal. Our bodies, and especially our nervous systems, are built to protect us when we feel threatened or triggered. These reactions are meant to help create a sense of safety for ourselves, though they can escalate and further entrench a conflict. This is often true about all sides.

Sometimes we are motivated to engage in dialogue because we think it is right or feel strongly about it, but our bodies are not always prepared. When deciding whether or not to try, take time to ask your body: do I feel safe? What feels threatening? How do I react when I'm confronted with other people's behaviour, indifference, activism or the information they share? If your nervous system gets easily activated in conversations or on social media, your body may be trying to get you out of harm's way and to a safer spot for a while. This is okay.

Remember that other people are also affected by their nervous systems. Many people express ideas, repeat narratives or hold onto certain feelings because they're triggered, scared or threatened themselves. Being connected to your own body might help them connect with theirs if you do decide to have a conversation.

Decide if dialogue is for you

In a crisis, we often feel pressured to build bridges or to engage in dialogue with the other side. We may also feel shame if we decide not to engage or if our conversations don't turn out well. This can create pressure to put ourselves in places where we don't feel safe, which often leads to anxiety, burnout and other consequences for our well-being

Remember that not everyone has to be a bridge-builder – sometimes it's more important to take care of ourselves and make sure we have enough energy for our everyday lives. Especially during a crisis. Dialogue can be exhausting and takes both energy and time that we may not have. It's not for everyone, and it's normal to decide if this isn't for you.

During the conversation:

Don't focus too much on anyone's positions, narratives or ideology

If the other person trusts you, feel free to share your opinions about the situation in Ukraine (if you're looking for inspiration, here are some ideas for that). However, confronting someone else's "facts" with yours often has a negative effect – when presented with opposing ideas, people often entrench further into their positions and narratives. This often escalates conflict in the conversation and, even if well-intentioned, often has the opposite effect than we hope.

It is extremely rare that you can "save" someone from their informational ecosystem by telling them that they are wrong. This usually happens only when people already have a deep trust in your judgment or if they believe that you have a similar set of goals or worldview as they do. They have to see you as an ally and not as a misguided friend or, worse, an enemy. Before presenting a different set of information than they're used to, it's helpful to try the following actions first.

Humanize the conversation

Very often we treat conversations like these as a battle between our minds or, like mentioned above, between our different sources of news or information. But there's so much else that's in play: our emotions, for example. Or our nervous systems. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as they provide different opportunities for connecting with the person you're talking with.

One road to take is to bring your conversation back to how the events in Ukraine affect you both on a personal level. Center your experience as a human being: instead of talking about ideals or values, speak about how you're affected personally. If the other person starts digging into information, narratives or history, ask them how it impacts them. Treat your experience as a ground to which you both can return to throughout the conversation.

This is especially helpful if you find that the conversation is escalating in tension or hostility. Ask for a pause, even if just for a few minutes. Draw attention to the escalation itself and how it's affecting you. Then bring attention back again to how the situation (and the conversation) is affecting you both.
Initiate empathy
While focusing on your personal experiences, give the other person space to share their anxieties and concerns. It may be hard, but it can be very helpful to just listen to them without interrupting or adding your own interpretation of what they say. If necessary, repeat what you hear back to them and confirm that you've understood correctly.

This can make the other person feel seen and heard, which often de-escalate hostility and tension and increases trust between you. They may now be more likely to listen to the ways that you feel scared, angry or frustrated. It activates their sense of empathy (and yours) and helps you to find common ground, or even to understand whether you're even speaking about the same thing at all. Again, ground yourself in your experience and emotions instead of in outside facts.

Speak to them in their own language

If the person you're talking to justifies their position using a specific set of values, for example protecting the oppressed, bringing peace or fighting injustice, it can be helpful to describe your own position using the same language. Affirm that you both believe in these values, and share how your commitment to those values has brought you to a different conclusion.

It's important here not to start a competition of values. Conversations easily fall apart when people argue over whether one set of non-negotiable values (like freedom, safety, self-determination, love or justice) is more important than another. By framing your concerns using values that are important to the other person, you work towards building a sense of solidarity that you have similar goals or priorities. This builds a foundation to finally start talking about positions or facts.

What to do if you get stuck:

If the conversation escalates, take a pause

When you're caught up in the heat of the moment, it can feel strange to take a pause. but this is especially helpful if the conversation is escalating in tension or hostility. Ask for a pause, even if just for a few minutes. Draw attention to the escalation itself and how it's affecting you. Then bring attention back again to how the situation (and the conversation) is affecting you both.

During a pause, taking deep breaths can help calm your nervous system and lead your brain out of "crisis-mode." It also can serve as a moment to reaffirm (if applicable) that your relationship is important enough to treat conversations with care. Sometimes this can "reset" tensions and lead to more constructive dialogue.

Admit when you're wrong or don't understand something

This can be extremely difficult because, in a discussion, we often link our credibility to an idea that we "know better" than the other person. Admitting otherwise can feel like losing power, especially when the stakes feel high. But in a dialogue, admitting that we learned something can de-escalate aggression, build trust and show the other person that together you've created a space safe enough to admit the same themselves.

We can easily get stuck in "loops," in which we repeat the same positions over and over again to no effect, when we're missing an important piece of the picture. If the other person entrenches themselves into their arguments, it might help to ask them what it is that leads them to care so deeply about their positions, goals or statements. You may learn something important that you didn't see before – if so, admit it. This also shows the other person that they can ask the same question of you (though they may not be ready to do so yet).

Focus on what's at stake for the other person

When the other person tells you about why their positions and values are so important for them (see the section above), pay attention to what's at stake for them personally. Sometimes people can seem irrational to us because they're motivated by needs, concerns or issues that are very different from ours and that we find hard to see.

What's more, peoples' identities, sense of well-being or even the place they hold in their communities can be connected to their positions. When we ask them to consider other possibilities, they can experience this as a threat to their very self. When presenting alternatives, or when sharing about your own views or values, it can be helpful to do so in a way that affirms the other person's well-being, sense of self or their dignity.

Address feelings of felt threat

Dialogue can become incredibly difficult when people's nervous systems are activated. As mentioned above, our bodies easily perceive opposing ideas as an external threat. More often than not, that closes them off from new ideas or perspectives – the same thing happens easily to us as well. It's only when a feeling of threat is addressed that people can start thinking creatively or collaboratively.

Taking pauses, breathing, empathizing and holding space for the other can all de-escalate feelings of threat. But so can acknowledging what the other person feels they have lost – for example, dignity, privilege, safety, status, relationships or more. The other person may see themselves as a victim in ways that may surprise you. If you reject their feelings, they will likely experience even more feelings of threat. Alternatively acknowledging these thoughts and feelings can de-escalate hostility and help get you unstuck from a conversation that seems to be going nowhere.

Even if you don't acknowledge the "facts" or narratives that inform their feelings, you can still focus on their personal experience. Saying things like "I can understand how you feel even if I don't agree – if I believed _____, I would feel something similar" can make them feel deeply seen and heard.

Create space for collaboration

If possible, finding ways to focus on values, goals or outcomes that you both find desirable can be extremely helpful. Even if you don't agree on a specific action, affirming the need for vulnerable people to be protected can help a conversation get "unstuck" and for constructive dialogue to emerge.

Find ways to frame you and your conversation partner as members of a team trying to solve an issue. It can help first to talk not about how to deal with specific issues like "sovereignty" or "defending borders," for example, but "addressing a humanitarian crisis." Externalize the issue as something outside of yourselves that you both are trying to solve and come up with positions that you both can stand behind. This releases tension and helps affirm that both of you have a right to exist in the same room.

Present a way out

If you get a sense that the other person is looking for creative solutions but is held back by questions of identity, belonging, well-being, safety or ideology, it can help if you try to create a "way out" of their entrenched position for them. This isn't about changing their mind (though they are free to do so) so much as making it easier for them to see other points of view or recognizing the validity of your own perspective.

If certain values they hold are non-negotiable, emphasize how those values can still be fully supported even if they consider other positions. If they are concerned about looking stupid, wrong or even evil for having held a certain set of beliefs, affirm what you value about them personally. It can be helpful if you confirm the difficulty of believing certain things if someone is located inside a particular informational ecosystem. It's important that any possible "ways out" address their particular needs and situation.

Some final words:

"Success" looks different in every conversation

Many of us define success in terms of changing the other person's mind. We often treat conversations in a militarized way: we want to win and to "take territory" for our cause. But there are many different ways that a conversation can be successful.

These can include having a conversation without devaluing the other person or wanting to cut them out of our lives. Success can look like repairing harm done to a relationship, even if we're not ready to see eye to eye yet. Sometimes a person might see the logic behind our positions, but they need time alone to process it – in situations like these, pressing for "victory" immediately can make the other person feel unsafe and start the cycle of escalation all over again.

Dialogue is a long process and often involves restoring relationships, coming to understand the other person better and, hopefully, healing a history of hurt and distrust. Not every conversation has to work towards all of these goals at once. Small steps lay the foundation for eventual breakthroughs.
Practice self-care
This is perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind. When you're having a conversation about topics like Ukraine, the other person is likely to be triggered or feel threatened. As are you. When in this state of mind, the other person isn't likely to be looking to make sure your well-being is taken care of – you have to do this yourself.

What's more, this kind of dialogue takes extra resources to hold space for yourself and for the other person. No, this isn't "fair," and so if you do decide that this is something you would like to do anyway, make sure that you provide yourself with the resources to take care of yourself. This can involve making sure you get enough sleep, take breaks when you're feeling stressed or take time (if appropriate) to affirm each other that your relationship matters.

Because the situation itself is deeply triggering, consider taking a break from social media and the news for a period of time before you have the conversation and engage in comforting calming activities like sitting in silence, taking a walk or paying attention to your body.
Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
Banner photo by mohammad_hassan on pixabay