During incredibly tense and raw moments like these, our ability (or lack thereof) to have good and constructive conversations about sensitive topics becomes all the more apparent. Desiring to talk to those closest to me and grapple with the implications of recent events us as individuals and communities, I’ve spent much of the past couple weeks pondering about what good conversations look like. Whatever progress or regress we experience in both the short term and long term will hinge on how successful we are at having these difficult conversations.
This isn’t something that pertains only to recent events. Difficult conversations can happen often. In the lead up to an election. Within our marriages and dating relationships. With family. With friends. With coworkers. With fellow congregants, teammates, or neighbors. We will be presented with moments throughout our lives where hard and challenging dialogue is required. How are we going to approach these moments when they inevitably arise?
Much of this post comes from my own experiences. From my successes to a degree. But even more so from my failures at trying to have good-faith dialogue with others. I by no means have perfected the art of having these conversations. But one opportunity at a time, and often with forgiveness and graciousness of the others I’m dealing with, I’ve been able to start figuring out a better way to have a conversation. And my hope is that these lessons I’ve learned over the years can be of benefit to others. That it can make your conversations more effective as well.
So here we go!
1. HEAR THEIR STORY
One of the best pieces of advice that Morgan has given me in our marriage was to allow the other person to speak for at least two minutes without butting in. This was a counseling tip she learned during college, and it’s something I think we’ve practiced well in our marriage. Honestly, it works wonders!
By giving people room to share their story without interruption or assuming what they are thinking and feeling, you give them license to share what they are truly thinking and feeling. I think we all know that sometimes finding the words to say can be difficult. By allowing them space to reason through their thoughts, you will often find they get closer to the root of the issue by the end of the two minutes. And allowing them to work through that process, will only help the conversation move from the surface level issues, to the deeper concerns your conversation partner has.
The first few times I tried it, I had to make a conscious effort to pause and count to 120 seconds and allow that breathing room in the conversation. I wanted to respond and give feedback earlier, but resisted. You would think it would be awkward, but people actually sense the freedom you are offering them to speak their mind. And they inevitably fill in the void.
After a few times, it became natural and every time I’ve made a conscious effort to do this, I have been able to take part in a much more genuine and fruitful dialogue. Unless we truly hear the other side out, we may wind up talking past one another. And that rarely leads to a successful conversation. So give space in the conversation to really hear the other side out. You may find you’re already starting from a better spot.
2. what makes us angry?
Anger almost always results from unmet expectations when we feel a lot is at stake. While a child might be angry that strawberry jelly was used for their PB&J instead of grape jelly, we would hope an adult would not respond likewise. To the child, the unmet expectation of what jelly would be on their sandwich is substantial at their stage in life. The adult however, should (hopefully) have a much broader and appropriate perspective in life.
Yet, and I don’t think you need me to say it, adults do in fact get angry too. Sometimes very much over minor things but, more often than not, it’s usually over things that are substantial. The betrayal of a friend or family member. Getting dangerously cut off by another driver. Being overlooked for a promotion. Or most recently, the unjust death of a man at the hands of law enforcement. When events like these get us angry, it’s because our expectations for life were unmet and that’s a big deal.
Unlike a simple matter of getting the wrong jelly, these unmet expectations can feel like life or death. While our response is often to great extents in our control, the very fact that we react in anger can tell us so much about what we value and how we perceive the world.
Asking our conversation partners to try and elaborate on what in particular about the difficult topic that makes them angry can shed a light on what is of most importance to them. What are their expectations, and what is at stake for them? It helps us to bring the humanity back into the conversation and better understand what is seemingly at stake in this conversation for one another.
3. find common ground
I’ve heard it said that the best conversations happen when two people have enough of a foundation shared that they can talk to one another, but enough differences to keep it interesting. Whether it’s shared experiences or shared values, there must be enough commonality to bear the weight of difficult conversations. Even the shared desire of respect for the opposing view would be enough.
As I think through the events that have unfolded over the past couple weeks, I cannot help but think there’s much more common ground shared than our news and politics make it appear. Whether it’s the nearly universal condemnation of the officer, or even the desire to see at least some amount of police reform in response, there is common ground to be had. Often this is very much the case in all of our conversations.
The desire to love and be loved. The desire to care for one’s family. The desire to pursue the truth and better ourselves and our communities. We may have varying ideas on how to go about these very things. Oftentimes vastly differing ideas. But I think more often than not we are conversing with other people who share the same good intentions we hold. And if that good will is not shared by both, the conversation cannot be productive.
Maybe as we share our stories with one another and reflect on our shared experiences and values, it will help us to see we’re not as divided as we once thought. And that maybe we can take a bit of that confrontational spirit out of the conversation.
4. define your terms
We all are culpable of throwing around rhetoric and loaded words that we often aren’t completely masters of ourselves. Even seemingly simple terms like “love,” “kindness,” “systemic racism,” “social justice,” or heck even the word “God.” They often serve as shortcuts in a conversation, but are we sure we are talking about the same thing when we use them?
Loving someone well depends upon what love in fact is. Often it’s through watching the embodiment of love in others that we learn what it is. And is kindness just tolerance, or is it more than that? Maybe we could view kindness as a more active trait, like using our resources to the benefit of another. Those are two very different ideas of kindness.
Maybe right now, no bigger term requires defining than systemic racism. This term has been so widely used lately for the purpose of admitting guilt and at times to compel others to see their complicity in “the system.” This term is unfortunately the perfect combination of ambiguity and humiliation and is rarely ever defined by those who use it. And as a result we often don’t really know what one another is saying, and many just tune out.
We don’t need to have textbook-level definitions prepared for our conversations. But we do need to step back and realize we may not understand each other because we’re assuming different meanings for the shared vocabulary we use. If we are willing to flesh these ideas out, we will better understand where each other is coming from.
5. What’s your solution?
I learned in premarital counseling that we (mostly men) should remember to be slow to offer solutions to other people’s problems. With that in mind, hopefully we’ve already heard each other’s stories, shared what makes us angry, established common ground, and fleshed out some of the vague terms we use as shortcuts in our conversation before offering advice. It’s at this point that I think it would be appropriate to discuss what we think the remedy to the situation may be.
This is often a challenge to do. We all have a much more difficult time defining the good than defining what is bad. It is far easier to know what we should be running away from instead of what we are running towards. This is probably no clearer than in many movies and TV shows today.
It is far easier for many of us to relate to and understand villians than to appreciate when storytellers try to depict the perfectly virtuous and upright character. We often feel dissonance when presented with altruistic characters because they’re so much more difficult to relate to. None of us can live the perfect life, and so we struggle to articulate what the greatest good would truly look like.
Yet, trying to define the solution to the situation is a very important aspect of the conversation that we need today. Social media is packed with negative stories pointing out all the flaws in the opposition. And those can certainly have a place in the conversation. But how many people are really casting a vision for what the good looks like? How many people are really trying to define and articulare what the remedy may be?
What are we aspiring towards and how are we going to get there? If we don’t ask this question, we’re spinning our wheels and probably just complaining the whole time. That’s a recipe for a conversation that goes nowhere but downhill.
6. Steelman not strawman
After listening to one another, one of the most helpful and difficult things you can do is to try and repeat back to your conversation partner the essence of what they are saying. Our news and politics is saturated with the strawman approach. They pick the most ludicrous and asinine versions of the opposition’s viewpoints and (as expected) dismantle them with ease. It’s an easy game to play.
Instead, consider that your conversation partner is disagreeing with you for the best reasons and intentions possible. Summarize back to them the clearest and most charitable “steelman” version of their argument to make sure you truly understand where they are coming from. And allow them to correct, supplement, or endorse your version of their argument.
You may find that the opposing side has some good reasons for holding the position they do. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their argument, but it does mean you are lending as much credibility to their stance as possible. And that should only foster good will for all parties involved.
7. who is irredeemable?
Finally, and most importantly, tense conversations tend to lead to deriding remarks and contempt for the people who share different views than our own. It’s not just that the actions of that police officer are condemned in the killing of George Floyd, but anyone’s opinion that may not completely tow the line with the current sentiments of the social justice movement. And it’s not just them. This guilty-by-association trend can often spiral beyond appropriate boundaries in any of our difficult conversations. It’s a byproduct of tribalism in whatever form it takes.
But especially over the past couple weeks, there has been a severe lack of forgiveness present in our conversations. A significant void of graciousness with one another.
If you want to hear my biggest concern with the social justice movement it’s this: That there is no mechanism for forgiveness in this relatively newfound religion (yes, I think this is a religion) and it will probably divide us. Look at Drew Brees. Look at Grant Napear. Look at Evergreen University, Relevant Magazine, or the Methodist Church. Look at past movements which have dug up old social media posts and hung people out to dry for past remarks. And even those who publicly confess their previous unawares to the privilege and supremacy of their past, will never excape the crushing weight of shame heaped on your shoulders. No one in the past is forgiven and it’s hard to imagine anyone will be today.
Can that approach to dialogue ever produce the long-term growth necessary to effect positive change in this world? Are people really to be completely written off by a couple statements, whether you believe their remarks are good or bad? What about the looters? The police? Our friends and family members we disagree with? Dare I say, even the police officer who killed George Floyd? Is there no forgiveness for anyone?
To me, this is what is most at stake. That divisions will be created where they weren’t before. That nuanced conversations will not be allowed. That we cannot take the dialogue to places that some deem uncomfortable. Feel free to disagree, but that’s what I feel is at stake.
I believe in a God who was willing to die for me to buy me back from all my transgressions. To redeem me when I was least deserving of redemption. He didn’t have to forgive me. He didn’t have to offer forgiveness to any of us. Yet he shared in our pains and paid our debts so that we could live fully through him. He could have shut us out but was willing to lean into us even when it meant pain and sacrifice for Him.
I’ve seen the change this type of sacrificial love can bring to people’s lives. It brought that change to mine and so many of my friends and family. It’s the kind of love that makes you want to extend that same love and forgiveness to others. The kind of love that can make communities out of a bunch of screwed-up misfits. The kind of love that can put political and social divisions we may have at the time into proper context.
This God affords redemption and forgiveness. Are we offering that to each other in our conversations?
We can disagree. There can be a lot at stake in our conversations worthy of anger. But are we willing to heal the scars and restore community by making the sacrificial move to forgive one another? That my friends is what will make or break our famillies and communities. Let’s try to converse well.