Do you dread political conversations as much as I do?
I absolutely hate conflict, and it seems that politics brings out every possible conflict imaginable. I typically keep quiet or portray at best a neutral position whenever I find myself in such a conversation. However, with 2016 right around the corner, and with my location right in the middle of Washington, DC, this neutrality has become impossible to maintain.
I believe US society is at a pivotal moment. There are so many issues that seem to divide us – abortion, gay marriage, race relations, the nuclear agreement with Iran, among many others. With the 2016 presidential race already in motion, it is likely these political hot topics will only widen the divisions among us.
Unless we do something about it.
If you’ve been reading Bridging the Divide for very long, you know my focus is on dialogue and conversation skills, especially when there is deep disagreement. I must admit, I focus on these skills because I so desperately need to grow in these areas myself. I recently read a book titled Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High that I believe offers some valuable tools to that end.
The authors define a “crucial conversation” as “a discussion between two or more people where (1) the stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.” That sounds like the types of discussions surrounding our national path forward, don’t you agree?
STATE Your Path
As we engage in pre-election conversations, I want to share one tool from this book that I hope will enable you to have more productive discussions: STATE My Path.
S – Share your facts.
Before jumping to conclusions, examine the underlying facts. By starting with the indisputable facts, you can reduce the level of controversy and opportunity for insult while increasing persuasiveness. Notice, however, I said “indisputable” facts; I believe this is a problem embedded in a number of the issues we are facing. When we look at issues such as abortion and gay marriage, we don’t always agree on what the facts actually are. Keep your focus on mutually accepted facts. (I’ll have suggestions for disputed facts in a later point.)
T – Tell your story.
By story, the authors of Crucial Conversations are referring to your interpretation of the facts. To be most effective, you must approach this stage with both confidence and humility – confidence in that your perspective is backed by facts, humility in that you may have overlooked or de-prioritized a piece of information that is important to the other person.
A – Ask for others’ paths.
To be honest, I would do this before telling my own story. Check to see that you have all the relevant facts, then listen for the conclusions the other person drew from the same facts. In particular, use “connective listening” to encourage open sharing.
T – Talk tentatively.
This is where I would bring up disputed facts. No one involved in this conversation is omniscient; no one is all-knowing. Use gentle and diplomatic language to suggest ideas and views that may be more controversial.
E – Encourage testing.
When the stakes are high or when there is a power imbalance, people may not immediately open up and share their thoughts and views. If you are going to have a true dialogue, you must create a safe place for people to share. First, you need to actively and explicitly invite sharing. Another thing you can do is to “prime the pump” – share what you already know and understand about the other person’s position. You can even encourage others to challenge your position or play “devil’s advocate.”
Above all, you must be genuine and authentic in your desire to hear and understand the other person’s perspective.
Armed with this new tool, you may feel you are ready to tackle the most obstinate issues in your world, but I would suggest practicing on a few lower-stakes conversations first.
- Instead of finding the most outspoken pro-life or pro-choice person you know, start with your neighbor on the topic of mowing the grass between your two houses.
- Instead of finding the staunchest supporter of traditional or gay marriage, have a conversation with your co-worker who keeps interrupting you during meetings.
- Instead of taking on the Iran nuclear deal, talk to your friend about his/her tendency to arrive late.
In other words, practice these skills when the results won’t “make or break” the relationship. As you build your skill and comfort levels with this model, you can start taking on bigger issues.
The important thing to remember is to keep the right attitude: is it more important to be right or to do right? (Doing right in the sense of preserving the relationship.)
In her book Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions, Lysa TerKeurst reminds us, “The secret to healthy conflict resolution isn’t taking a you-against-me stance, but realizing it’s all of us against Satan – he’s the real enemy” (p. 64-65).
Remember who the real enemy is, and it will be easier to keep the right attitude in these conversations.
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.
Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions, by Lysa TerKeurst