A healthy debate at the dinner table can actually bring families even closer

It was during the second course of Christmas lunch that my future-father-in-law entered the third hour of his 'Greta Thunberg Is The Pits' lecture. We'd been going back and forth all day, undoubtedly boring everyone at the table while ensuring suffered a side of indigestion.

"Why can't she just act like a child, go outside and play!" he argued. 

Ah yes, I had been waiting for this one: "If Greta went to school in Sydney, she literally could not go outside and play. And why is that?" I asked, gesturing to the now omnipresent smoke.

He smiled, drained the last of his BoomerFuel – South Australian Shiraz, anything from 2012 – and stood up. I knew what was coming.  

"Don't tell me…CLIMATE DERANGE!"

To debate or not to debate

Cue laughter, some from him, a little from me. The conversation comes to an end, feeling more like a performance piece. Like two practiced ballet dancers, we move through our steps with grace and poise. 

It is an argument we've had before and will have again. Arguing has become a safe ground for us. 

As well as climate change, we covered off Scott Morrison's Hawaiian holiday, whether or not people prefer Carlton or Tooheys as a session beer (Carlton, unless you're crazy), and who makes the better Bond: Brosnan or Craig. 

The good fights

He and I come from different worlds, with different political views, but we always find common ground when it comes to disagreeing. "Please stop arguing, can't we all just get along?" pleads my future-mother-in-law, who treats confrontation with all types of contempt. 


She has the best intentions but what she fails to realise is that our arguing is not a butting of the heads because we refuse to understand one another, but rather a way to inch closer through a battle that is bruising but never unbecoming.  

I'm of the firm belief that there is something almost breathtaking about a scintillating argument. Like fencing without the ridiculous beekeeper helmets, it can be a real spectacle of wit, guile and smarts. Watching two skilled practitioners trade blows, every prod and push predicted and countered, every point backed up by evidence, it's intoxicating. 

A familial surprise

Not all productive arguments have to be verbal duels complete with a captive audience. My friend Steve returned home for Christmas only to find his dad had become a climate denier. Run along Steve, collect your unironic lump of coal from under the tree.  

"It was quite hard not to argue emotively because I was thinking, 'You're an idiot,'" he admits.

The argument began to heat up (much like the planet), but realising that the upside of the conversation would be lost if mishandled, Steve changed tact.

"It was Christmas, and we didn't want to ruin it, so we decided to park it and exchange a couple of emails the following week," explains Steve.

"Once we cooled off and it was all written down, we were able to have a decent dialogue, we didn't exactly meet in the middle, but we did start to break the deadlock and hear each other more." 

Charting enemy territory

Had they abandoned the argument altogether, Steve would still be eye-rolling at his dad's denial, while his old man would be laughing at his snowflake son. Instead, they were able to argue their way to something more valuable: empathy. 

And that is what we need more now than ever. Here we hover, at the dawn of a new decade and it doesn't take 2020 vision - so sorry, had to be done - to see that the ground we walk on is shaky. 

Most of our opinions get validated in a digital echo chamber we've curated, leaving us all convinced. We're right! They're wrong! Look at how many people agree with me! 

When we do finally clash typically, it's lowbrow and usually in 140 characters or less. Once again, trolls have ruined it for the rest of us.

How good's cricket?

Of course, quarrelling with my future-father-in-law inevitably leads to an argument with my fiancée, Kate, who'd prefer we just talked about something less inflammatory. Like cricket. 

I'm tempted to take her advice, but then I know that she and I argue well too – it must be genetic. And being able to argue with your partner expertly is a good thing, according to Joseph Grenny, co-author of the book, Crucial Conversations.

Grenny conducted a study on a thousand couples asking them how they handled conflict and how fulfilling and promising their partnerships were. The results found that people who talked through conflicts were ten times more likely to be happy with their relationships. I rest my case.

But as I begin to present my argument, Kate interrupts me and suggests there might be a more fun way of expelling the post-Christmas-lunch lethargy.

She makes a solid point. No arguments here.

After continually being told to "use his words" as a young boy, Thomas Mitchell took that advice on board and never looked back. Since then his words appeared all over the place, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, Time Out, The Huffington Post and GQ. Thomas spends his days observing the unique behaviour of the Australian male, while trying not to overstay his welcome at the local cafe.

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Have you discovered major political rifts within your family? Share your experience in the comments section below.