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Difficult Conversations

Learning how to listen and talk

So the holidays are upon us — and it is likely we will be spending time with people who understand the world very differently than we do, as evidenced in the divisions of the recent election. As The Beatles famously sang at the end of their Magical Mystery Tour album: “All you need is love!” 

That song just wouldn’t have been the same if they had gone on to explain that love is the motivational part of working a plan that will build relationships of understanding, collaboration and, yes, love. The force of love is needed right here, right now — and all across the country — in order for Americans to do their part to build a world where human beings survive and thrive.

So what plan might be valuable as we share candles and feasts and words and smiles at tables where progress toward understanding needs to be made?

Having difficult conversations requires several crucial steps to achieve success. The first step is self-awareness. Having a hot temper myself, I have learned to monitor my emotional responses. Although it might seem satisfying at the time to “give someone a piece of my mind,” I’ve found that, in order to experience self respect at the end of the day, it works out much better to keep certain pieces of my mind. I make no grandiose claims to being good at this, but I give myself points for trying — and I have indeed met with significant success over time. So: 

1. Notice interior emotions and postpone communication until you’re calm enough to choose the wisest course. Bonus: When I wait to express myself, there is no obligatory apology later.

2. In contrast to our dominant cultural assumptions, relationships are more important than being right — even “right beyond question of doubt,” if one’s real goal is to shed light in the darkness. So it is actually necessary to proceed with respect and generosity if I hope that the other person or persons might see my point of view and even begin to incorporate it into theirs.

When someone makes outrageous statements, rehearse in your mind every good thing you know about them. They will feel this. Surprisingly, they may become more interested in your view. Bonus: As you listen and learn and appreciate, more and better responses will occur to you because you won’t be caught in your fight-or-flight reflexes. 

3. Advance listening skills. Cultivate genuine curiosity. Use “I” statements. “Please help me understand how it is that you think this.” “That is so interesting! I see things differently, so please tell me more about this.” And it must be kept in mind that any version of “How can you be so stupid?” in the mind of the questioner will only cause anger and alienation. Did I promise you this would be easy in the introductory paragraph?

Bonus: As one friend put it, “in school they teach us to read and write but they don’t teach us how to listen and talk.” You are advancing your education in an important way.

4. The organization Beyond War recognizes something called “the 95 percent rule.” If we disagree, my best course of action is to ask you non-rhetorical questions and listen 95 percent of the time. I should endeavor to speak only about 5 percent of the time, and when I do I should respectfully ask good quality questions. If I succeed at this, you will be willing to talk to me again, and you may well become genuinely curious about what I think. 

Bonus: Then we have dialogue with all the creative possibilities!

5. Take a longer view. We live in a culture of instant gratification. As a society, this is costing us. Take a longer view and realize that people need time to process — and compare new ideas with events. It is much more valuable to engage someone with a worthy question that they take away to ponder, than getting them to admit you are right before they are ready to hold that thought.

Bonus: Holidays free of the urge to fight or flee.

May we all breathe deeply amid the pleasures of warm fires, good food and drink and shared laughter, and may we accept our own imperfections as well as the imperfections of those around us.