Friday, September 15, 2023

I am always surprised by how quickly I become frustrated when disagreement surfaces in a conversation about something that I care about. As someone who trains others how to have constructive dialogue, I know intellectually how to communicate amidst conflict. Still, I find it uncomfortable to face a disagreement without trying to fix it.

Despite best intentions, our conversations often go awry because of how our brains are wired—when our ideas are questioned, we feel like we are under attack, and, out of habit, we protect ourselves by rushing to resolve the conflict. This feeling of being under attack is less abstract for many in our society who are constantly scrutinized, second-guessed, or rejected for aspects of their identity. As a straight white man, I do not notice every aspect of a discussion that others find difficult, and yet there are many that motivate me to avoid a conflict or minimize it to “make nice.” Given the strain of facing disagreement, why not avoid it? Or, is there something to gain by slowing down and remaining in a state of discomfort?

The answer to why and how to have healthy dialogue should begin with a recognition that it may not be the right time, place, or way of communicating for you. Dialogue requires a commitment from all participants to aim for mutual understanding the focus must be on the process as opposed to the product. This does not mean that the outcome doesn’t matter, but rather that being in a family or a community means that we need to pay attention to how we engage each other. Only then will we discover what my colleague Rachel McLaren has seen in her research—that the most meaningful relationships we have are those that are tested by conflict.

Former Seaworld CEO Joel Manby tells the story of meeting with the CEO of The Humane Society. Both had been trained to distrust the other and neither expected to find much common ground. Still, they met, and discovered that, while significant disagreements remained, they could also see some common ground. Today there are initiatives to control commercial whaling that might not exist if it were not for their willingness to understand each other despite their differences.

Thus, if you decide to have a conversation and expect that it might be difficult, how should you proceed?

  1. Be clear on the purpose—it will help you decide how to achieve it. Do you hope to win the other person over? That’s a fine goal, but it isn’t dialogue. Do you want to have a deeper understanding and explore the issue? Do you want to think deeply but also make a decision or take action together? This brief resource from the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation can help you reflect on the right process to achieve your purpose.
  2. Be emotional—give yourself permission to feel the feelings that come up for you during a dialogue. You may have a hurtful memory or a history with this person that surfaces for you. While there are many tips and tricks for managing our emotions, one that I try my best to remember is to simply take a break. When we are in the heat of the moment, we might forget that it is okay to ask for some time to think. Even ten seconds can be enough to reset our brain and feel ready to hear and be heard.
  3. Be curious—focus on questions rather than answers. When a discussion becomes difficult, University of Iowa Professor of Education Sherry Watt suggests that we turn to wonder. “If you feel judgmental, or defensive, ask yourself, ‘I wonder what brought her/him/them to this belief? I wonder what feelings are arising for him/her/them?’ and perhaps most important ‘I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself?’”
  4. Be present—listen to understand rather than respond. Focus on understanding the other person’s point of view as they are expressing it. Before planning a response, stay with what they are saying. Restate their idea to check that your perception matches theirs (I have found myself in the midst of an argument only to realize that I’m unsure what we disagree about!)
  5. Be open—you may have strong feelings about the issue, but you can always learn about the issue from someone who has a different perspective. Being open doesn’t mean that you will change your mind or alter your position, but it does mean that you seek to understand values and experiences that differ from yours.

The dialogue will not be perfect, and you will make mistakes. Let these mistakes develop the relationship you are building rather than derail it. Too often we see a negative conversation as a personal failing, as if we lack the character to have tough conversations. But if we remember that dialogue is a skill then we can give ourselves grace enough to continue to practice.

If you are looking for more information, please contact the “Facilitating Difficult Dialogue” Obermann Working Group. This campus-wide coalition wants to amplify and expand opportunities for healthy communication that matters.  

Cover image by Dylan Gillis.