Constructive Conversations Across Our Differences
Wherever we gather, whenever we relate, we do so as unique human beings, each with different experiences and perspectives. Yet, in the midst of our differences, our conversations connect us as individuals and sustain our community life. Through them we interact in ways that can dismiss or validate each other’s perspectives, erode or reinforce the strength of our relationships, wound or offer healing.
Constructive conversations provide a rich and fertile soil in which we can cultivate a deeper understanding of one another and the world around us.
Given the power and potential inherent in our conversations, we are wise to do all we can to ensure they are healthy. This guide offers basic suggestions for adopting attitudes and strategies that foster the types of conversations across our differences that help our relationships flourish and our communities thrive.
Foundational Principles for Healthy Dialogue
The purpose of healthy dialogue is to understand each other’s experiences and perspectives better. The aim is not to prove points, convince others to adopt different perspectives or reach agreement. Instead, constructive conversations are a cooperative endeavor to discover, share, learn, understand better, and be better understood.
Healthy dialogues are built on a foundation of respect. Each human being has an innate worth and dignity that should be upheld and protected at all times. Therefore, throughout a constructive dialogue, each person gives respect on the basis of this human worth and dignity, not based on understanding, agreement, or approval.
Healthy dialogues require each participant’s commitment to do their part to maintain a constructive process.
Tips and Tools to Help Open the Flow of Healthy Dialogue
Meet in person. We tend to understand each other more accurately and fully when we not only hear each other’s words, but when we also hear the tone of voice and see the body language with which those words are spoken. Electronic modes of communication, which severely limit the flow of meaning in these respects, tend to be far less effective at building genuine understanding than face-to-face conversations.
Be fully present. Demonstrate that the dialogue is important by giving it your full attention. Take measures to eliminate unnecessary interruptions and distractions. Make eye contact and maintain an open posture throughout the conversation to communicate your interest.
Seek to understand. Dialogue is most fruitful when each person involved actively seeks out each other’s intended meaning. Work to really listen when others speak. Resist the urge to plan what you want to say next. Instead of making assumptions about meaning, ask questions that lead to clarification and deeper understanding.
Share facts that are observable. Stay away from generalities. Avoid making accusations and assumptions about possible motivations.
Ask open-ended questions that invite others to share freely. Focus your attention on listening deeply to understand the perspectives and experiences they choose to share and the meaning they have for them.
Use “I” statements. Share from your own perspective. Tell about your experiences and the meaning they have for you. Share your thoughts, concerns and conclusions.
Share personal stories. Narratives of experiences speak powerfully. Awareness of the human impact an issue has is a vital aspect of cultivating a broader understanding.
Name impact. It is important to name the impact of hurtful or damaging words and actions, whether or not they were well intended. The following may be a helpful way to approach naming impact: “In the <situation>, when you <behavior>, I felt <impact>. (1)
Define the terminology being used. Do not assume participants in the dialogue share the same definitions of words or understandings of concepts. Take time to clarify meaning.
When listening, ask for clarification: “Would you be willing to help me understand what you mean when you say, _____________?”
When sharing, offer clarification: “When I say _______________, I mean _____________.”
Build on shared values. Our differing perspectives can be easier to share and hear when we communicate them in light of values we hold in common.
Try using some of the following phrases to encourage each other and the flow of dialogue:
Please tell me more.
I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thank you for sharing that angle.
Tell me how your thoughts developed in this.
I appreciate your experience with this.
Check the accuracy of your understanding throughout the dialogue. After a person shares, reflect back to them what you think you are hearing them say, then ask if that sounds accurate. If it doesn’t, non-judgmentally ask them for clarification. (e.g., “I want to understand your perspective here, tell me more about what you mean when you say, ______________?”)
Practice active self-awareness. Be aware of the things that tend to activate your fight or flight instincts--the things that tempt you to defend, convince, dismiss, or avoid, retreat, keep peace at all costs, etc. (1) If left unchecked, these instincts make it difficult to remain open and honest. Before the dialogue takes place, develop a plan for how you want to handle yourself if/when you experience them. Then, throughout the course of the conversation, stay aware of how open you are feeling. If you sense yourself reacting in a manner that makes it difficult for you to focus on understanding the perspectives your partner is sharing, take a time out to deal with your reaction. You might pause to breathe deeply for a moment. If it feels appropriate, you might say something like the following to your conversation partner:
“I am feeling upset. I need a moment to collect myself before we continue.” (1)
“I feel ____________ right now. Could we set a time to come back to this?” (1)
Allow space or silence in the course of the conversation. A moment of silent wait-time throughout the course of a dialogue can be a powerful invitation to engage for people who are more introverted or may be feeling hesitant. A quiet moment also allows everyone to briefly reflect on the things that have been shared or calm their emotions before moving forward.
Remember constructive dialogue happens when each participant contributes in a healthy manner. If one or more participants in a dialogue are not contributing in a constructive manner, it may be helpful to take a break from discussing the topic at hand and directly address the way the conversation is being conducted before proceeding with the topic. For example, “It seems like we are__________ (repeating ourselves, raising our voices,…). I’m wondering if we are missing each other. Would it be helpful to set a time to come back to this?” (Resources 1, 3 & 4 below offer many additional helpful strategies.)
Be aware of the many factors that often create imbalances in whose experiences and perspectives are sought after, shared, heard, validated, and acted upon. Take effective measures to correct disparities.
Learn more on your own. Enrich the quality of the dialogue you have by learning more about the topic outside of your conversation. As you research, seek multiple perspectives from a variety of people who are significantly impacted by the situation being discussed. Seek out narratives and personal stories that help humanize the impact of the topic. Listen to voices, experiences and perspectives beyond those with which you already agree or find comfortable.
Assume full responsibility for your own attitudes and actions. Allow others to bear responsibility for their attitudes and actions.
Adopt attitudes and practice strategies that foster healthy dialogue, but know not every conversation will go as hoped. Apologize when it is appropriate. Forgive others and yourself. Learn from the process. Engage again….
The following sources shaped the thoughts and suggestions presented throughout this guide. They offer many additional perspectives that may prove helpful for learning more.
“Across Lines of Difference: Practical Tools for Constructive Conflict” by Geoff Mills, http://www.yourworkhaspurpose.com/
“Respect, Understand, and Debate—Get the Order Right” by Geoff Mills, http://www.yourworkhaspurpose.com/
Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott, 2011
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, 2012
The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, Michael P. Nichols, 2009
Other Helpful Links
Living Room Conversations, http://www.livingroomconversations.org/
On Being: Civil Conversations Project, http://www.civilconversationsproject.org/
“Listening Well As a Person of Privilege” by Christena Cleveland http://www.christenacleveland.com/blogarchive/2013/05/listening-well-as-a-person-of-privilege-the-complete-series?rq=listening%20well