by Sonia Solomonson
To say these are challenging times is an understatement. And to say that people are more contentious, frustrated, angry, and fearful than ever also is an understatement. The pandemic. Systemic racism. The economy. The upcoming election.
We are divided on so many issues and so many levels. We can’t agree on wearing masks and social distancing. We can’t agree on which doctors, epidemiologists, and virologists to believe. We can’t agree on tearing down Confederate statues. Nor can we agree on Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter. And don’t even start on the political divisions. It can be positively exhausting.
So how do we get through all of this? How can we have constructive conversations about the many issues facing us today?
No easy answers
I don’t have answers. I have a lot of questions about how we can do this in a way that’s productive and moves us forward as a country and as the human community. I keep asking the Rodney King question: “Can’t we all just get along?” I’m trying to stay positive and hopeful amid the fears and tensions, just as you likely are too. And I will admit that these conversations are difficult for me as well. Although I don’t have answers, some tips come to mind about how to start and continue a conversation without shutting down the listening on both sides.
As the old question goes, do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?
Before you begin, be clear on the objective for your dialogue. Do you want to learn? Do you honestly wish to understand where the other person is coming from? Or do you want to change that person’s mind? As the old question goes, do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?
It’s essential to know that going into the discussion for it will shape your conversation. Be clear about the issue, too. Be as informed as you can be, fact-checking where you’re unsure. It is true that sometimes we learn more about what we really believe as we discuss it with others. Some of us think out loud. However, it will be helpful to enter the discussion with the clearest picture possible of how you feel at that time. Do whatever is necessary to establish trust. If you don’t trust each other, any conversation will be difficult, if not impossible.
Stay with the topic
Stay focused on whatever topic you and your conversation partner(s) are addressing. Don’t bring in other side issues that only confuse the main issue. Keep open and have a mindset of inquiry. You might be surprised at what you’ll learn from the other person. Avoid accusatory language—and definitely avoid statements such as, “You always….” or “You never….”
Hearing the stories of others helps us drop assumptions we may have had about them.
Be willing to share your stories with each other. As each of you shares some of your story, you’ll likely discover why each of you believes as you do. Our stories are unique and important to who we are, and that helps us understand and respect each other more. Hearing the stories of others helps us drop assumptions we may have had about them.
Speak for yourself
Own your opinions and feelings, using “I” language and avoiding statements that indicate you alone have a corner on truth.
You may just have to agree to disagree.
Manage your emotions as best you can. I know, I know. Many of us feel strongly about some of these issues. However, conversations will move forward more smoothly if we can remain calm. It is important to be open about your feelings on a given issue, too. Honesty is essential. You may just have to agree to disagree. That’s okay. But in the process, you will have learned something about yourself and the other, no doubt—to say nothing of learning more about the issue at hand.
Pause as needed
Be willing to take breaks if the conversation stops being productive. You may want to come back to it later, agreeing to put a comma in the conversation rather than a period.
Be comfortable with silence. And always, always remember to be a good listener. Resist the urge to interrupt. In addition, be sure you understand what your conversation partner means before you respond to a comment.
By all means, avoid name-calling and insults. Such tactics never move a conversation forward.
Even if such conversations frighten you and you feel ill-qualified to initiate them, I urge you not to hold back. Do take the risk. It seems to be the only way we can heal all the rifts between and among us right now. We simply have to talk. We have to find our way back together. We want to discover our best selves and create better days ahead.
Care to share?
No doubt you have some tips and ideas of your own. Perhaps you’ve already had some of these difficult conversations with family, friends, or even strangers. I would love to hear your thoughts, too. You can email me through my website and its contact page. If I get enough ideas, I may be able to create another article to help us with these discussions. I suspect they’re a challenge for most of us. And we surely can learn from one another.
Not one of us has all the answers. But together, we can create a way forward.