I hate to reiterate a truism that is nearly become cliché: we live in divided times. I feel these divides when I brew tea in the morning, scroll through Instagram, and chat with peers. I especially feel them when I visit my family or read the news.
These divides appear most painfully (and sadly) in conversations. Words are more powerful now than ever before, and they are leaving an alarming trail of debris and damage behind them.
Divided times mean more difficult conversations. It's easy to sidestep these conversations; I'm guilty of avoiding challenging chats. (I'd prefer to read a book and drink espresso, you know?)
Yet these difficult conversations are urgent. They may be the linchpin of meaningful change. They may also be the linchpin of personal change and community growth. We need to talk about what's going on out there, and especially with those "from the other side."
Keep these things in mind as you go about preparing to have those tough talks with people who don't quite share your perspective.
Drop the "us vs. them" mentality.
Conversations about the pros and cons of vaping, who should be president next, or abortion (eep!) can easily create "sides." These camps of support or opposition are ultimately not helpful for anything beyond political polls. They can be fundamentally divisive when brought into a conversation.
It can be tempting to join these camps once the other party begins to speak. Do what you can to abandon this mentality, however. Ask the other party to do so as well—respectfully and kindly.
You may struggle to step into this mental space of neutrality. The next few tips can help you lay down this boxing-ring mentality more easily.
Take a breath before you speak—every time.
I made the same point in my post about productive arguing. Having conversations with people who don't share your perspective can feel like arguments. They may hover over vast wells of emotion. They may become an argument.
To ensure that your conversation doesn't tip so closely into a shouting match, focus on your breath.
Take a deep belly breath before you speak, and try to do so every time you open your mouth. Be sure the other party is done speaking before you respond, and ask if he or she is finished before doing so.
A single breath can give you grounding, disintegrate any latent spiky emotion (anger, fear), and help you speak more slowly.
Ask more questions.
I love questions. They are vehicles for productive discussion and they can flatter, in a way, the person you're conversing with. Questions give you a chance to catch your breath and your partner to explore their perspective further.
Both can be valuable, especially if you're feeling resistant to or triggered by something the other person has said. The more time your conversation partner has to really outline their reasoning, the more insight you can have into their perspective—which can neutralize triggering emotions and even bring some empathy into the mix.
Ask considerate, open questions, such as "Can you elaborate on that point more?" or "Can you give me an example?" These questions show your interest in learning more and can be delivered sans emotion.
End the conversation with agreement.
After a difficult conversation, things may feel a bit rocky. Try to smooth out these normal rocks by ending the conversation in the spirit of agreement.
This may mean changing the subject. It may mean asking your partner: "What can we agree on here?" Mention that you'd like to close the conversation on brighter terms. This means that the last word will be a positive, shared one—you may even go out to ice cream after!
A lot of what I discuss here has to do with active listening and presence. It can be hard to channel these habits into a prickly conversation, so even if you're only able to integrate these tips for part of a discussion, bravo!
Here's to productive conversations—and the positive change they enforce.