What You Get Wrong in Tough Conversations
These simple tricks could save you from all sorts of drama.
Posted Jan 21, 2020
Think back to the last time you shared your views on a controversial topic. Maybe you told your neighbor Charles that you think free speech needs to be limited in order to protect minorities. That can be a tough conversation, so you might have felt anxious about his response. Or maybe you were highly confident in your stance, whatever Charles thought.
He got upset and seemed to brush what you’d said aside without understanding it or engaging with it. In a loud and condescending tone, he told you all the reasons why you’re wrong.
The result was that you heard what Charles had to say, thought about it carefully, and changed your mind to agree with him.
That’s how conflicts work, isn’t it?
The conclusion to this scene sounds preposterous. But many of us seem to be acting as if it’s really possible. Or maybe we jump to cut other people off and tell them why they’re wrong because we want to have shouting matches that we know won’t be worthwhile but will make us feel good about our own views. Or maybe we just don’t know what else to try.
If we’re going into a difficult conversation with Charles, what are our options?
Our minds might go immediately to what to say to win Charles over, but before we get there it can help to remember that we have a lot in common with him. Whoever we are and whatever we believe, we want to be taken seriously, and we want to be heard. If that doesn’t happen, there’s little hope for the conversation to proceed constructively.
Listening and validating people for having spoken doesn’t mean saying we agree with them or that we’re giving in to them. Whatever their position, we need to show them that we’ve really heard it before disagreeing. This point can’t be overstated. It sounds simple because it is. Yet most of us miss doing this. We just jump right in and tell people why they’re wrong.
Here’s an activity to help drive this issue home. Lookup a few articles on controversial topics. They could be on gun control, GMOs, or even something as seemingly straightforward as mindfulness meditation.
Now try to notice how the authors validate or invalidate viewpoints other than the one they’re advocating. Did they even mention that alternative views exist? If so, was there an accurate representation of the alternatives or just a shallow passing reference that made them sound dumb? Was there any mention or emphasis on points of common ground between disagreeing parties? Was there a nod given to any persistent uncertainties or was the issue presented in an overly confident way?
This exercise is eye-opening. I’ve been doing it for years, first in researching how to have better quality disagreements for my book and now for these blog posts and for presentations I give. What I’ve found is that a truly tiny handful of articles on difficult topics remember to explain that the situation is complicated. It’s remarkably rare for us to even try to recognize that the other side has a point to make that may apply quite well in at least some circumstances. Instead, we set up a dynamic of pure opposition, and the conversation quickly gets entrenched.
There are certain topics—like whether or not the earth is flat—where there’s a clear answer and further debate isn’t worthwhile. But many issues aren’t so clear cut, we just present them as if they are. (And even with the flat earth “theory,” it’s still interesting to try to understand the factors behind how people come to believe that.)
Low-quality conversations on tough topics aren’t inevitable.
When Charles shouts at us that free speech needs to be protected no matter what, we might first frame the interaction so that we’re on the same team versus the challenges of the issue before us. And we might also validate and reflect back what we think he’s said. “I can see that you care a lot about free speech. I do too, it’s a really important topic. It sounds like you think it needs total protection.”
You’d be amazed by how many times you get this wrong and put words in Charles’ mouth, making his position sound more extreme. We regularly assume the other side is more extreme than they really are.
After getting clear on what Charles has said, we can ask a question about the details of his belief, to help deepen our understanding and to steer the conversation away from an unhelpfully large, abstract, and morality-based debate. “How can free speech be protected? What specifically would that look like?”
If he’s like most of us, Charles may raise a mix of some important points and some uninformed or poorly thought-through ones. He’s likely fuzzy on the details. Again, we can validate what’s been said and look for anything we might agree with. We can especially acknowledge anything that helped us learn or think about the issue differently. We might agree that one example Charles gave did seem like a dangerous limit on freedom of speech and let him know that we hadn’t heard that particular example before.
Then we get to the part that many of us relish—introducing how our views contradict Charles’. We can raise examples of how some types of speech can cause harm and not public benefit (the reason that false advertising, libel, and perjury aren’t legally protected). What’s happening, in democracies at least, is typically some balancing act between different freedoms.
Having had his points clearly heard and feeling less threatened by the tone of the conversation, if Charles is like most people, he might now be more open to this line of thought. Of course, it’s still possible that he won’t be and will remain aggressive or insulting. In that case, you may decide it isn't worth it to engage further on the topic.
In most cases though, this conversation will turn out to be much more rewarding for both of you. (Note that I’m assuming here that you’re speaking in person and with someone you know. Especially with strangers, digital communication, stripped of all of the cues provided by tone, body language, and eye contact, would make this conversation more difficult although not impossible.)