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?
Seeking Middle Ground
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.