Three weeks ago, I wrote this post about the importance of seeking out and considering multiple perspectives. At the time, I was thinking about the pandemic, the reopening debate, the culture wars surrounding masks and social distancing, and dissension about economic policies and social inequalities. After writing the post, I remarked to a friend that it felt like it had never been more difficult to navigate conversations outside our echo chambers. I had no idea that it was about to get so much harder.
The death of George Floyd has led to widespread protests, which have led to widespread debate and a variety of other reactions. Sadly, the discussions I’m seeing, reading about, and participating in have become even more polarized, with many people even less willing to listen to each other and consider alternate perspectives.
I’ve believed for a long time that it’s critical to engage in serious, respectful conversations with people who disagree with us, which is why I wrote that first post. The events of the past few months, and especially the past few weeks, have strongly reinforced that feeling. I also acknowledge that it’s hard, and can be uncomfortable.
So today I’m offering a few suggestions to make it easier:
1. Discuss Conversational Ground Rules
Earlier this week, I had a two hour conversation with my friend Brad, who, as I explained in that previous post, is a very smart man who disagrees with me on almost everything. After discussing a wide range of topics, we began to talk about what made our conversations possible. Specifically, why have always been able to air contrasting opinions without offending each other or shouting each other down? I posited that some of it is because of our enduring friendship, and Brad responded by saying he doubted our friendship would have endured if we hadn’t figured out, a long time ago, how to navigate the conversations. We avoided the “chicken and egg” debate, and instead focused unpacking the unspoken rules and attitudes we bring to the table. To summarize:
- We accept that each other’s viewpoints are valid and worth respecting, even if we don’t see things the same way.
- We take turns and avoid interrupting each other.
- We ask questions and make an effort to fully understand each other’s ideas.
- We are cognizant of each other’s feelings, and offer empathy and support.
- We’re careful about the words we use, both out loud and in our own minds. For example, we say “Why do you?” instead of “How could you?”, because we’re looking to understand rather than to judge.
- We discuss “inconvenient” facts rather than ignoring them.
- We are open to changing our minds.
So I asked myself if the unstated rules that Brad and I follow could become stated expectations in other conversations. What would happen if we started these conversations by saying something like, “I do want to talk about this, but before we do I was wondering if we could try to agree on how we’re going to talk about it. I don’t want us to be angry with each other or walk away from the conversation without considering both sides.”
I tried it a few days later when a relative with whom I often strike sparks brought up the topic of the protests. We did take the time to set some expectations, and it did improve the discussion and the way we felt afterwards. I’m not suggesting it was a miracle cure, but we both believed, afterwards, that setting ground rules was beneficial.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, habit #5 is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. No matter the situation, we should avoid dominating a conversation, because it usually has a negative impact on how we are perceived and how we build and maintain relationships. In a disagreement, it’s especially important to listen, with an open mind, to what someone else has to say.
How to Communicate, by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning, contains a wealth of great advice and information, and the very first chapter is on listening. Part of the chapter focuses on twelve common blocks to effective listening, including feeling the need to be right, seeking an argument, and mentally rehearsing your response while someone else is speaking. It’s important to be aware of these behaviors and actively work to avoid them.
3. Remember that middle ground exists
We live in a complex world full of complex situations, but too often our discourse completely ignores nuance. Moreover, we often try to categorize each other. The attitude of “If you think or support this you have to think or support this other thing” is illogical, dangerous, and disrespectful. This attitude pops up in a lot of situations, and has been especially pervasive during recent events. I’ve heard so many people argue that if you support the protesters or anything they stand for, you have to accept and embrace riots and looting, and if you support the police or worry about law and order, you have to accept and embrace abuse of power. However, forced polarization is not only untrue, but also unproductive. Applying this standard to others makes it difficult to have productive conversations, and applying it yourself makes it hard to have an open mind.
4. Commit to learning to be more effective
I want to acknowledge once more that communication skills and effective disagreements don’t come easy. I’ve been studying and practicing communication skills for most of my life (from competitive debate to my graduate studies to everyday situations), and I often feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. However, the more we learn, and the more we try, the more we improve.
In October of 2018, three time World Schools Debate champion Julia Dhar discussed this same topic, and her fifteen minute TED talk is a wonderful resource that I promise will be worth your time and attention.
Let’s not avoid these conversations, but instead seek to have them, and to have them effectively.
Be safe, be well, and please share your thoughts in the comments.