How Not to Have Difficult Conversations

By February 8, 2017My Thoughts

Remember the days when topics of religion and politics (and the Great Pumpkin) were taboo?

I do. Days when we could avoid the glaring differences of opinion between ourselves and our friends and family? In my memory, it seems like a simpler time, a happier time. But, just like the Dalai Lama says of exclusivism and isolationism, the prevalence of the internet and instant access to communication has made it impossible to go back to how things were before. No matter how much we want to go back to a time when we aren’t bombarded from all sides with differences of opinion, and hostile emotions about those differences, we can’t.

We can log off of social media more often. We can limit our screen time. We can fast from negative news coverage. But, our world has been changed irreversibly. We simply cannot go back to a time when we weren’t confronted with intense political and religious differences on a daily basis.

I begin there because my first instinct when I get overwhelmed is to lament the world that no longer exists. Perhaps you have felt that way, too. Sticking with that feeling of longing and nostalgia is unproductive, even though I know how tempted I am to do it myself. If we begin with the acknowledgment that we can’t turn back the clock, we allow ourselves to look forward to things that we actually can do.

We can’t go back to a world before instant global communication, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have better conversations. It doesn’t mean we are doomed to talk past each other. We are not destined only for anger and factions. If we can begin to employ a few simple things as we talk to each other about our differences, perhaps we will find that we are no longer talking past each other but, rather, with each other about important things.

1. No more diversions – If we are going to have meaningful, albeit difficult, conversations we have to stop using diversion tactics. Diversion tactics have almost become so predictable that they are a caricature of themselves. A diversion looks something like this:

Person 1: I am angry about what _________ political candidate is doing.
Person 2: (employing diversion tactics) Why didn’t you get angry when ________ political candidate did the same thing?

What person 2 has done is take the focus off of the uncomfortable topic person 1 has brought up. This tactic will not further understanding or help both people see each other’s perspectives. It raises person 1’s defensiveness, and the conversation usually breaks down immediately.

It’s tempting to point out perceived hypocrisies. It makes us feel powerful or comfortable or in control. It is so much harder to listen to person 1 and try to understand the cause of person 1’s anger. I’m guilty of employing diversion tactics, too – if even only in my own mind (I’m not one to talk politics online!). It’s an incredibly easy cycle to fall into, but I have yet to see it lead to a productive and meaningful conversation.

2. No more comparisons – Comparisons will never move us forward, but they are so easy to employ. As an example of comparison:

Person 1: I am angry about _______ issue.
Person 2: If you think that issue is bad, why aren’t you passionate about _______ issue?

Comparison is similar to diversion, but at it’s heart it attempts to make one issue trivial when compared to another issue. It is possible for people to be passionate about multiple things at the same time. It is possible for people to be deeply moved by multiple things.

Another example of comparison is:

Person 1: People are suffering!
Person 2: Those people aren’t suffering as much as ________ people!

This kind of comparison happens so often – not just in political conversations. So many people are afraid to express their struggles because they know others have it worse. The struggles each person faces are important. They are still struggles, even if they aren’t the worst struggles in the world.. There is always someone who has it worse in the world, but it doesn’t invalidate the struggles a person is facing today. Comparison makes it hard to hear what is at the root of what person 1 is saying.

3. No more shaming about the past – This one is touchy for me. I have been relatively uninvolved in current events until the last ten years or so. Growing up, I didn’t like watching the news because it depressed me and made me feel afraid. So, I avoided it. More recently, I have realized how important it is to be aware of what’s going on in my community and in my country (and in the wider world), and so I have suddenly begun to care about things I never cared about before. I see this interaction on a nearly daily basis:

Person 1: I am concerned about ________________!
Person 2: Why weren’t you concerned about that when it was happening 5 years ago?

Person 2 has a point, but it’s like all good marriage counselors say: you can’t change the past. It is unproductive to bring up past arguments, past conflicts and past foibles. They can’t be changed. Person 1 will either get defensive or angry, or both. And a deeper conversation can’t happen.

So, what can we do? If we’re avoiding diversions and comparisons and past-shaming, what can we do to move deeper into conversations?

1. Listen – This sounds easy, but it’s not. When someone says something that triggers that diversion/comparison/past-shaming reflex, we need to learn how to pause. Look deeper. Listen deeper. What value is the person expressing? What is the person concerned about? Are you concerned about that as well? Pausing and listening might reveal that you share a value in common, but perhaps disagree about how to pursue that value.

2. Ask questions – When a topic comes up that raises defenses, asking meaningful questions can help dial down the emotions and lead to greater understanding and connection. Some examples:
What would you like to see happen?
What experiences/resources/statistics helped you arrive at your viewpoint?
I see this differently, can you help me understand your viewpoint?
It sounds like ____ is important to you, how can I help you get what you need?

When someone has said something that triggers a deep, emotional response, asking questions is probably the furthest thing from your mind. But, pausing to ask a question will help everyone take a deep breath. It also helps us remember that we’re all people with thoughts, feelings, and needs.

3. Refrain from name-calling – This seems like it should be obvious, but I think it still bears repeating. Lumping someone in with “those people” or pejoratively referring to a person’s ideology is never helpful. Can we all agree not to stoop to name-calling?

4. Agree to disagree – If you’ve listened and you’ve asked questions, and you still don’t find a point of agreement, that’s all right! I’m not sure where the idea that we all have to agree came from, but there has never been complete agreement in the past, and there won’t be in the future. We all see things from different perspectives, and that diversity of perspective strengthens us as long as we don’t allow it to tear us apart. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “This has been a helpful conversation. I don’t think we’ll agree on this, but that’s ok with me.”

There are things we can’t agree to disagree about. There are values that are so deeply important to us that we can’t compromise. But, we have to decide what those values are, and not every difference of opinion has to make or break a relationship.

We will still have conflicts. We will still disagree with others from time to time – or often. But, perhaps if we learn how to have these conversations more productively, we will find the world we live in to be less unbearable.

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Tim

    Great lists, April. I get so frustrated at times with the diversions and comparisons that I find I have to drop out of the conversation entirely to avoid saying anything I’d regret. It’s hard to get back on track when facing those types of conversation blockers.

    • I feel the same way. They have a way of raising defenses, and it is so hard to pull back when that happens.

  • This is excellent, April. Timely, too, because I just got unfriended on FB by an in-real-life Christian friend with whom I’m on very different sides politically. This really surprised me, because we hadn’t actually had a conflict, and I usually just unfollow someone whose posts I’m not comfortable with rather than unfriend. I messaged her saying I hoped that she was just “cleaning up her friends list” as some people say they periodically do, and that I hoped I had not said anything offensive (though I’m sure I did not). She hasn’t replied to my message, and that makes me a bit sad. She and I were probably one of those “agree-to-disagree” relationships and that was OK with me — but perhaps it wasn’t OK for her. I think you’ve given some great suggestions and cautions here for our highly-charged times. Thanks.

    • Jeannie, I’m so sorry to hear about the situation with your friend. 🙁 It really is a highly-charged time, and it seems like no matter what a person does, it stirs up more trouble.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

    Really good and helpful stuff, April. Thank you. I wonder–maybe this is trying to “go back”–but also about having those difficult, honest conversations in private rather than with 400 people looking on. In the public forum, feelings of shame and winning come up so quickly. Obviously you can’t have a private conversation with every person whose comments irritate you. But I’ve found when I really think I need to engage or think a comment here might bring positive results rather than just stoke the fire, to send a personal message or email directly. In that setting, I’m likely to be both honest but also conciliatory rather than snarky. Can’t say I’ve changed a lot of minds, but I think I’ve established connections rather than tossing hand grenades.

    • This is such an important piece. Thank you for lifting it up! Public conversations lose the intimacy and connection of more direct and personal communication. It is so much easier to try to “win” when there are others looking on. I think seeking out those personal conversations on more sensitive matters would go a long way in promoting healthy and positive conversation. Thank you for this!

  • Kari Geske

    Thanks for sharing your wise words, April. I have found these months to be disheartening.

  • Roland Legge

    April, wise words for our time. Thanks.