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Want Productive Conversations? Keep Three Words in Mind

Keep accommodation, humility, and goodness in mind to have better discussions.

used with permission by pixabay
Source: used with permission by pixabay

Difficult conversations seem to be erupting everywhere as we increasingly find ourselves living in a remarkably tumultuous and highly polarized society. People too often seem to be screaming past each other, refusing to listen to anyone with a point of view different from their own. Few seem open to altering any of their views and only scream louder when confronted with information or facts that contradict their perspective. This way of interacting doesn't seem to work out very well for anyone. Furthermore, it tends to be rather uncivil and furthers the divides between us. In these circumstances, no one wins and everyone loses. Whether it is through social media, cable news, talk radio, or face-to-face conversations, we seem to have lost the fine art of thoughtful, reflective, mature, and reasoned dialogue. How can we reverse this alarming state of affairs?

While there are no simple recipes for turning this disturbing trend around there are thoughtful, tried and true, wise, and evidence-based strategies that might help us work towards more productive conversations regarding challenging topics among people with diverse perspectives. One model that I find to be especially helpful comes from the wisdom of the Jesuits and Saint Ignatius of Loyola articulated over 500 years ago. In a nutshell, it suggests that we can improve our dialogue if we follow the wisdom of framing our discussion using the following three words: accommodation, humility, and goodness.

Accommodation. No matter whom you are engaging in conversation, try to accommodate to their point of view by putting yourself in their shoes. Try to see their view from their perspective and experience. You certainly don’t have to agree with them but you can try and understand them by putting yourself in their skin to see things from their particular vantage point.

Humility. Can you approach a difficult conversation with humility recognizing that no one has the corner on the truth about everything? Rather than feeling overly confident in your views and trying to convince others that you are correct while they are wrong, can you approach difficult conversations with others with humility and an openness to learn from them?

Goodness. Rather than assuming that those who disagree with you are bad, evil, ignorant, or disturbed, can you approach others with the assumption that they are good and want to embrace goodness? Can you imagine that others, in their own way, want what is good and want what is best for others even if their views seem hard to understand or to appreciate? Can you start your conversation with them from this perspective and with the assumption of their goodness?

Approaching difficult conversations with accommodation, humility, and the assumption of goodness might go a very long way in terms of having productive and useful conversations. Give it a try and see how it goes. It has to be far better than the alternative.

For a more extensive discussion of this topic, you might wish to watch a lecture about it by my friend and colleague, Professor Mark Ravizza, SJ, Ph.D. noted here. Another terrific video about managing difficult conversations, especially about diversity issues, is from the well-known comedian, W. Kamau Bell, currently, a visiting scholar at Santa Clara University noted here.

So what do you think? How can we have more productive conversations in such a polarized culture?

Copyright 2018, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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