How to Have Respectful Dialogue about Tough Social Issues
By Guest Blogger, Ann Jenrette-Thomas (Delta Concepts Consulting facilitator)
The massacre of LGBT individuals in Orlando, the ongoing killings of Black men and women by police officers, the vengeance shootings of police officers, and the xenophobic sentiment surrounding BREXIT (to name a few), have sparked outrage. What’s worse is there seems to be a growing divide among people: Rather than using these events to achieve greater understanding and prevent future violence, we are becoming increasingly polarized.
If we want to find solutions to the underlying social issues that result in these events, then we must have courageous conversations.
Courageous conversations occur when we speak openly and honestly with people who have different points of view. They require the willingness to listen deeply in order to achieve understanding. They also necessitate communicating our own point of view in a respectful way. The ultimate intention of these conversations is to achieve a greater understanding of each other and, hopefully, find viable solutions.
Be forewarned, not everyone is ready to have courageous conversations (these can be emotionally charged issues!). I don’t recommend that you have these conversations if you or the people you want to speak with are not truly open to learning and growing from the conversation. But if you are interested in having conversations that move us forward on important social issues, below are some strategies that will help make your conversation more productive.
- Process your emotions first. Before you can have a productive conversation with someone with a different viewpoint, you must first process your own emotions. Emotions tend to run high when it comes to social issues. You may feel angry, hurt, invisible, sad, hopeless, etc. Unfortunately, most people tend to talk or write (e.g., on social media) while their emotions are still running high. Find a way to come to terms with your emotions to the point where you feel like you can be open to hearing a different point of view. Try to journal or talk with people with whom you feel safe.
- Designate a time to talk. Believe it or not, failing to schedule your conversation can be a real barrier to communication. You may be an extrovert who processes things out loud and wants to talk immediately because it helps you figure things out. Other people may be more introverted and need time to determine what they want to say before the conversation occurs. If all are comfortable talking about a situation immediately, then a simple, “Is it OK to chat about this now?” will do.
- Set an intention for the conversation. Think about how you want to show up and what you want to accomplish. Do you really want to understand the perspective of the other person? Do you want to reach a particular resolution? When you set an intention to do something, you are more likely to act on that intention.
- Outline and agree to ground rules for the conversation. This does not have to be a long, arduous process. Allow each person to state what he/she needs in order to make the conversation safe and productive. (Feel free to share this blog post before the meeting so everyone is on the same page.) I highly recommend establishing the following ground rules:
- Don’t make anyone wrong;
- No one can speak in a manner that demeans, blames, shames, or is hostile toward another; and
- Only one person speaks at a time.
- Stay curious. Curiosity can be the antidote to biases and preconceived notions. When you stay genuinely curious, your mind can observe new ideas, which allows you to see new possibilities and solutions that were previously invisible to you. Curiosity can also help expand empathy and strengthen relationships. Social issues become polarizing because we tend to de-humanize people with an opposing view. By staying curious, we can connect to the human experience and emotion behind the other person’s viewpoint, which can lead to better solutions. http://www.deltaconceptsinc.com/blog/respectful-curiosity/
- Listen attentively. Be fully present when another person is speaking. Listen with your whole body – what are they saying, what is their body language conveying, what else are you picking up on? Be mindful of your own biases and keep them in check. If you are truly listening, you’re not formulating responses while the other person is talking, nor are you interrupting. If you think of something to say while another person is talking, park your thoughts in the “parking lot” (see tip #7 below). http://www.deltaconceptsinc.com/blog/deep-listening-with-ting/
- Use a “parking lot.” If you start feel strong reactions (such as anger, irritation, judgment, etc.) while another person is speaking, imagine that there is a parking lot behind you, and place those thoughts/feelings there until it is your turn to speak. You may also use the parking lot whenever you want to respond to something the other person is saying. Once you place an item or feeling in the parking lot, resume attentive listening.
- Summarize what the person said. Once the speaker is finished, quickly summarize what you heard in your own words. If you do nothing else, this is the single most effective tip I can offer to de-escalate a situation. You can move from anger to vulnerability within a matter of seconds by employing this technique. Simply say, “What I heard you say was . . . [repeat what you heard in your own words]. Did I understand you correctly?” Don’t get defensive if you didn’t get it quite right; just ask for clarification. Then ask if they have more to share. Sometimes when we hear our words reflected back to us, it leads to new insights. http://www.deltaconceptsinc.com/blog/the-why-and-how-of-misunderstanding/
- Validate feelings. Next, validate the speaker’s feelings. You don’t have to agree with their feelings or experience of the situation. Merely put yourself in their shoes and try to understand why they felt the way that they did. Start your validation with this sentence, “I can see why you felt ______________ because . . . [why you believe they might have felt that way].” If you feel unsure about how your words landed with the other person, you can always ask the other person if they felt validated. http://www.deltaconceptsinc.com/blog/stepping-in-with-belief-and-empathy/
- Switch roles. Everyone should have an opportunity to speak. If a person is not following the ground rules, don’t get upset. Simply remind them of the ground rules. Remind the listeners to summarize and validate the speaker as needed.
- Take action. Once you have a new understanding and expressed your point of you, it’s important to take the lessons learned and decide on how you will take action. The action item may be something personal to you (like learning more about a subject) or it may be on a more global scale (such as working on legislation). No matter how big or small, taking action will reinforce the learning from the conversation and truly help make a difference.
Patience is Key
Be patient with the process. Social issues often carry a strong emotional charge because of how they personally impact people. Many social issues have a deeply-rooted history. As a result, be patient with yourself and others. We may not be able to achieve world peace overnight, but we can incrementally make this world a better, more peaceful and inclusive place – one courageous conversation at a time.
What kind of courageous conversation can you schedule in the coming weeks?