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Crucial Conversations QA

Finding Middle Ground

Dear Crucial Skills,

When I try to have crucial conversations about issues where there seems to be no middle ground (i.e., abortion, global warming, politics), people often respond with over-the-top, dismissive, and divisive statements. How can I effectively hold crucial conversations about high-stakes topics with those who engage in aggressive ways?

Signed,
Seeking Middle Ground

Dear Seeking,

Several years ago in London, I hailed a taxi for the 45-minute trip from Gatwick airport to my hotel. After I informed the driver of my destination, he turned back and said, “You have an American accent. Are you American?”

“Yes,” I responded.

He then made a pretty bold generalization about the culture I came from.

It was late at night. I was a bit tired. I weighed my willingness to engage in an energetic conversation and as I considered ignoring the comment I thought, “I should be able to do this. I should be able to talk to someone with a strong opinion even if I don’t fully agree.”

As this challenge took shape in my mind, I found myself more interested in a dialogue. I had no intention of trying to change his mind, but I thought, “Here’s a guy who wants to be heard. And if there’s hope for the world it’s only if people like him and me can disagree in a respectful way.” With this moral mission in mind, I responded.

“Not too worried about your tip, I take it?” I said and smiled at his eyes in the mirror.

He broke into a broad grin, then continued, saying that he loved Americans, but again reiterated some strong generalizations.

His voice got louder and his face redder the more he spoke. I began to wonder if I should just nod and smile or if I should really engage. But I returned to my conviction that until we can find peaceful ways of disagreeing we have no hope of creating real peace in the world. At one point in what turned into a five-minute monologue I patted the back of his seat to interrupt him.

“Hey, my friend. May I ask you a question?”

He looked into the rear view mirror and paused. “Sure. This is your taxi at the moment.”

“You know, I am from the U.S. and don’t get as much contact as I’d like with people who have a whole different experience than I do. I am very interested in hearing your views. And I may agree with some of them but disagree with others. Are you interested in mine, too, or should I just hear you out?”

“Oh, no,” he practically crooned. “I want a debate!”

“Okay, then how about this. You take the first five minutes and then I get the next five. At the end, I don’t care if we both agree on everything or not, but I’m guessing we might both be a little smarter. How is that?”

He laughed heartily, turned to face me full on and said, “You are a strange man. But that is a deal.”

I don’t know that my taxi-driver friend ended up seeing the world any differently when we were done with that ride, but I did. Not that my opinions were profoundly altered, but they were tested in a way I was grateful for. Most importantly, I was encouraged to discover that dialogue was possible with someone who held strong views and who seemed initially uninterested in anything but a monologue.

This is what I’ve found to be helpful in such a controversial conversation:

1. Talk about how you’ll talk. If you’re having a one-sided conversation but would like a dialogue, and it’s not going that way, stop the conversation and come to agreement about ground rules. You can do this in a very respectful way by letting the person know you are interested in their views and want to continue the conversation. Then ask for time boundaries, or lower volume, or whatever will help you engage in a healthier way.

2. Check your motives. Be sure your interest in the conversation is sincere. If you just want a chance to demonstrate the perfection of your own opinions, expect the same from the other person. Fair is fair. But if you want dialogue, be sure you are open to new information or perspectives. If you are sincerely interested in getting smarter not just looking smart, you’ll behave in ways that will invite the same from the other person.

3. Encourage disagreement. We’ve learned a startling truth about dialogue. People are okay with you expressing even very strongly held views so long as you are equally genuine in your invitation of their disagreement. Before sharing your opinions, make a statement like, “You know, I’ve got a really strong opinion on this. I’ve thought a great deal about it and read pretty widely, and I’d like to tell you my view. But at the end, if you see holes in it, or if you have new information I don’t have, I desperately hope you’ll challenge me with it. I really want to learn from your view in any way I can.” This sincere invitation takes the fighting wind out of others’ sails. They realize they don’t have to beat you over the head with their opinions because you’re asking for them!

4. Never miss a chance to agree. Finally, don’t go for efficiency. When we agree on 50 percent of a topic and disagree on 50 percent we tend to move quickly to the disagreements because those are what interest us most. And besides, life is short, so why not start with the fight, right? Wrong! If you want worthwhile dialogue, take the time to listen for points on which you agree. Point them out. Confirm them. Put them in the “Pool of Shared Meaning.” Then—and only then—move to the areas of disagreement. When you do this you reaffirm that your goal is not to win, it’s to learn.

I hope these modest ideas are useful to you as you engage with others. I truly believe the future of humanity lies in our capacity to develop mutual purpose and mutual respect across the planet—and that happens one crucial conversation at a time.

Thank you for your interest in advancing public discourse about our most crucial issues.

Warmly,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

23 thoughts on “Finding Middle Ground”

  1. Well written and very helpful. It’s difficult for me to know how to change a monologue into a conversation without offending the speaker. You’ve given me good tools for doing that. Thank you.

  2. I like the suggestions and I was proud to say that I have used them. I once had a boss who was frustrated because decisions I was making as editor of the newspaper did not jive with his (no need to rehash that). I told him once when we were discussing this that I felt honorable people can disagree on these types of issues and I absolutely never meant any disrespect. It changed our relationship drastically. I think he took these things personally. It was just very hard for me to view the world the same way he did and move from what I considered objective journalism to a more advocacy role. Oops, I slipped into rehashing old sores.

  3. Thank you for this article. I strongly agree with your line “I truly believe the future of humanity lies in our capacity to develop mutual purpose and mutual respect across the planet—and that happens one crucial conversation at a time.”. This was a very helpful article!
    Best regards.

  4. This is the best advice I’ve heard in a very long time about holding conversations with those who seem only interested in expressing their views as a diatribe and disregarding, with contempt, any opposing viewpoints. Your scenario was excellent – I may have to memorize the phrasing until it becomes more natural to me. I’m one of those that will retreat into silence if confronted with highly opinionated people and/or boilerplate issues. Thank you!

  5. Talk about how you’ll talk
    I guess I’m skeptical on this one – two rational people talking about a subject they feel strongly about agreeing to ground rules and then actually listening. I’d like to believe it’s possible.

    As Steve W comment indicates even if on the surface there seems to be dialog success underneath the experience it’s still linked to “old scores” and a lingering desire to rehash them.

  6. Thank you for this piece. My boyfriend has a tendency to go off on monologs about issues and it’s very difficult to get a word in edgewise. I like your tips and hope to use them so we can engage in meaningful conversations about issues instead of soapboxing.

  7. Great article. When you say, “When you do this you reaffirm that your goal is not to win, it’s to learn.” and “I truly believe the future of humanity lies in our capacity to develop mutual purpose and mutual respect across the planet—and that happens one crucial conversation at a time.” those two thoughts echo something I’ve had in my personal credo for some time. Thanks for giving me some additional tools to make it a reality.

  8. Before I get caught up in a discussion about a topic where there seems to be no middle ground, knowing that I can have very strong opinions and often a need to “be right”, I ask myself how “crucial” it is to have the discussion. I’ve learned that opting out of a conversation such as this is not backing down, or being closed-minded. Sometimes it’s just not meaningful enough to justify the stress.

  9. Once again, your column both lifted my spirits and reminded me the possibilities that arise when we just speak and listen calmly and openly. This column also reminded me that I can view any conversation where I or another person has a strong opinion as an opportunity to further develop crucial skills. And, Louise M. reminded me that I can take a break from that once in awhile… Thank you all!

  10. Thank you for such an informative piece on entering a potential volatile conversation. Although I’d like to say it sounds doable, I’d still be hesitant to have that discussion with some people. If it looks safe, I’ll give it a try.
    I’m keeping this one!
    thanks,
    jan

  11. i just happen to agree that the world would be so much better if we thought that way, so my appreciation is enthusiastic because we have the same agenda: thankyou!

  12. This newsletter is interesting and useful but seldom impresses me and teaches me as much as the book. This particular response did. Thank You!

  13. Joseph,
    I was having these exact thoughts yesterday as it seems a huge national initiative (Afghan war) is at greater risk because people were ineffectively communicating with one another, and so felt the need to speak about, rather than to the parties with whom they had disagreement. Until we move off this demagogue vs. dialogue model we seem to have embraced, we will not achieve anything of consequence. While we are still more interested in making others wrong than finding solutions, that is what we will continue to create.
    Living on purpose!
    John

  14. I always look forward to my e-mails on Crucial Skills. This one in particular is very meaningful in so many ways. The responses are also insightful. My husband knew about Crucial Conversations before I did and now I know he has used these exact tools on some of our hot-button issues in our marriage. I believe federal, international and quite honestly, all individuals should use the tools in everyday interactions with each other (and read your books as well). I agree–this one is a keeper and I am going to try it on some of my political-discussing friends where the trend is to brow-beat for an agreement with their point of view or not engage at all. Excellent work!

  15. Thank you for this article. I will try some of this where I can in some of my future conversations. One thing that I would like to see some ideas on, is how to handle conversations with individuals that are mentally unstable. I work with individuals of this type, who tend to “light off” when they are disagreed with or are very unhappy with what they are hearing. I have found over the years that fruitful dialogue is usually not possible. When you try to draw them into dialogue, they often take a “left turn” and just “jump topic” to something they feel they can win with. I end up just listening until they burn out or the phone rings, etc. I am not a person that backs away from confrontation, but a few will turn to physical violence quickly, so they are best handled with kid gloves.

    I’m ready for any and all ideas!

  16. Excellent post. I love the concreteness of the example. You always have a marvelous way of tying experience and principle together.

    What strikes me most in this is that this kind of guidance is so rare! I wrote a book called Unite and Concur: How to Stop Arguing and Start Communicating About Politics before the last election just so I could learn to manage this kind of conversation without getting riled or stunned into silence. I didn’t see much out there of this caliber. If I rework my book, your approach will influence my revision.

  17. One observation I would make here that I missed in my previous comment. I wouldn’t title this “finding the middle ground.” It sound like the word compromise – where two sides concede – as opposed to synergy where they engage and create something different and new.

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