None of us wants to be judged or criticized, especially for our thoughts and beliefs. We want to feel safe before we’re willing to talk openly and share our opinions, especially about “hot” topics. Because uncertainty induces fear, we want to trust in each other’s good intentions.
If you’ve decided to tackle a tough topic with someone and desire to have a constructive conversation rather than an adversarial debate or a conflict, recognize that there are always (at least) two sides in any situation.
TO PREPARE, ASK YOURSELF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS
1) Are you emotionally ready to resist the temptation to judge, criticize, denigrate or attack the person with whom you disagree in order to pursue mutual understanding?
2) Is your true motive for engaging in a tough talk about a social or political issue, to learn, to understand, to persuade the other person, or to win?
3) Are you ready and willing to listen in order to understand, without interrupting or judging?
4) Are you willing to be civil and speak with care and respect?
READY TO PROCEED WITH AN INVITATION TO CONVERSE?
1) Determine whether the other person would be interested in establishing clarity of purpose and a spirit of collaboration. Is it someone who would make the same kind of effort that you are prepared to make? If the person declines, accept the response.
2) Establish “ground rules” for how to proceed: one topic at a time, a time and place with no distractions or interruptions, no acting out (yelling, walking away, bad language, attacking), and shared speaking and listening time.
3) Bring your best self to the conversation. Manage yourself so you have no regrets about your behavior.
4) Listen actively — seek to understand with no interrupting. Paraphrase the meaning you hear and show respect by responding to the points made and affirm your understanding. This helps to avoid misunderstandings and ensures that you are both discussing the same thing and not talking past each other — a common problem with challenging conversations.
5) Speak only for yourself, from personal experience, not defending or representing an ideological approach or an entire political party.
6) Maintain a positive spirit of dialogue; a learning attitude. Avoid a critical or dismissive tone or other negative non-verbal communication— lack of eye contact, deep sighs, crossing your arms. This is important because the most powerful and credible communication is not the actual words we use.
7) Engage to comprehend the other person’s perspectives and beliefs, not to persuade. You cannot change people. The only person you can change is you.
8) Seek first to understand (facts, issues, perspectives, priorities), then to be understood. Assumptions are deadly and are usually wrong. Paraphrase the person’s meaning before you disagree.
Most of the time, discovery of common ground results from mutual understanding and regard for the hopes, fears and values that underlie individual perspectives and beliefs. For example, while we enjoy and value the liberties and freedoms assured by our Constitution, we may disagree about how to achieve and sustain them. Such are the challenges and opportunities of free speech provided by the Founding Fathers and protected by many wars. Freedom is not free.