When people bait you into fights about controversial issues

A reader asked:

People ask me what I think about something or how I feel about something. If my answer is unpopular it makes them upset or angry. I have told people not to ask me questions if they don’t want the answer, but that doesn’t seem to be very effective. I am thinking about ignoring questions that are like that, but I don’t know how well that will work or if people will get upset because I ignore them. So at this point I am at a loss for what to do.

realsocialskills said:

I think this depends on the context. I’m assuming here that you’re talking about unpopular opinions related to social issues, religion, politics, or other things that are about deeply held values. If you’re asking a different question (eg: if people are asking you whether you like their art), this answer probably won’t be helpful. That said:

It’s not always possible to avoid offending people.

There’s a social price to be paid for having unpopular opinions. Sometimes it’s really important to people that you agree with them, and some of them will push the issue until you say something that offends them. (And, depending on the nature of the opinions, people might sometimes be justified in pushing the issue.) If you have strongly held unpopular opinions, it’s probably really important to work on keeping perspective in the face of other people’s anger.

But, not everybody is going to be hell-bent on pushing the issue, and even when they are, it’s still sometimes possible to avoid the conversation:

Sometimes the best thing is to immediately change the subject, eg:

  • Them: So what do you think of this controversial thing that we always fight about?
  • You: Let’s not go there. Did you see the game last night?

Some subject-change phrases:

  • “Did you see (episode of show you both like)?“
  • “How’s work?”
  • “How are your kids?“
  • “Do you think the weather will be good enough to go hiking this weekend?”

You can also sometimes evade the question by deflecting it to something vaguely related, eg:

Another possibility: expressing discomfort:

  • Them: So, what do you think about this controversial thing we always fight about?
  • You: I’m not really comfortable talking about that.
  • or: “That’s really personal.“
  • or: “That’s a bit heavier than I like to get at a party; let’s keep it lighter.”

It can also sometimes work to give them a specific warning that they’re treading into potentially offensive territory (although this can also backfire):

  • Them: So what do you think of this controversial thing?
  • You: I think my answer might offend you. Do you really want me to answer that question, or should we talk about something else?
  • or: “Do you really want to know the answer to that question?“

Another possibility: stating your opinion in a matter-of-fact way and refusing to fight about it:

  • Sometimes just stating the opinion in a straightforward way will deflect conflict
  • This doesn’t work with everyone, but it can be really effective with people who are trying to bait you into an emotionally laden fight
  • It’s sometimes possible to say what you think in a way that makes it clear what you think, and that you’re not interested in fighting about it

I’m not totally sure how to describe how to do this. But, eg:

  • Them: What do you think of the really popular ballot measure everyone else at this party likes?
  • You: Actually, I’m against it. I think it’s harmful to people with disabilities.

Sometimes that can even lead to a good conversation. Sometimes it gets them to drop the subject. Sometimes it can lead to an argument (which you might be able to refuse to continue; you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.) It helps a lot if you can take an unapologetic tone that doesn’t sound like you think you’re saying anything objectionable.

Short version: If people try to pick fights with you on controversial issues, there are sometimes ways to deflect them. Scroll up for more details.