For generations, we have been taught that it wasn’t polite to discuss politics and religion in a social setting, but perhaps that discouragement has led us to where we are today – generally unable to politely debate at all. Often, such conversations lead to yelling, deletions and blocks on social media and the breakdown of relationships. But it doesn’t have to be that way: What if we learned how to talk without intending to change the other person’s mind, but rather to understand his or her perspective? Now more than ever, it’s important for all of us to have productive and respectful conversations on difficult topics.
Unsilenced, an organization dedicated to breaking taboos and fighting injustices against human rights, says there are three barriers that prevent us from working through difficult conversations. They are: institutional, cultural and personal.
In an Unsilenced training recently, the focus group discussed the rights of people who are transgender. The facilitators asked, “Why is it so hard to have a conversation about being transgender or on any other conflictual topic for that matter?” The truth is that because of our institutional, cultural and personal influences, it becomes emotional and, as a result, personal. When we can’t convince others about our viewpoint or don’t feel heard, conversations break down.
A small adjustment in mindset can go a long way to ensuring that we can keep the art of healthy debate alive and well in our democracy. It’s much easier to discuss these topics when the goal is to understand the other person’s perspective, not necessarily agree with it. This takes the pressure off you as the listener and off the person sharing because they don’t have to convince you. An important side effect of this exchange is that we are forming a human connection based on emotional understanding.
To start a conversation where you know there are differing opinions, you might say that you know that you don’t agree on many issues, but that you want to understand the other person’s perspective. Would he or she be willing to share their ideas and perspectives about it with you? It’s essential to hold yourself accountable to being a nonjudgmental listener and to seek to understand how the person’s viewpoints have been formed based on their experiences. At the end of the conversation, you still might not agree with their perspectives, but you want to make sure you are providing validation to the other person for being willing to share their viewpoints.
One sadly needs to look no further than the headlines of their local newspaper each day to see that more than ever we need to come together to learn and be willing to have the difficult conversations in order to build community and grow understanding. After all, the strengths of our communities, our connectedness to each other, and sometimes our lives, depend on it.
Sarah Lloyd is a clinically licensed professional counselor and co-founder of the Geneva-based Action Consulting and Therapy. Feedback on this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.