What if we could come away from a heated situation, where one person does not win, and one person does not lose? And neither person feels like a winner or a loser?
If you’ve engaged in conversations lately around emotive issues (here are some examples: vaccinations, lockdowns, protests, or border shutdowns), you’ll know how much passion and conviction is driving them. Strong emotions fuel and easily polarize a conversation. In heated debates, we fall into the styles that Adam Grant traces out in his book Think Again. We become ‘preachers’, ‘politicians’ and ‘prosecutors’ to get our points across, to ‘win’. I’ve witnessed on more than a few occasions how one person retreats as things hot up, taking from the interaction the lesson that speaking your mind comes with personal risk. Some commit to never bring up the topic again. This is an outcome that is unfortunate, for some conversations need to be had, and indeed they are the golden threads that can take us forward.
A ‘good’ conversation leaves us not only curious, reflective, and thinking again, but also a little closer than before. A gentle meeting of minds allows us to hear a different view, to see the whole person with their individual wants, needs, and interests. At its finest, a beautiful conversation is generative – it opens and activates our minds to positive possibilities we did not see before so that together we chart new paths. The way we navigate the future could be so different if we had more skill in this area and the confidence and courage to lean into conversations.
Setting the conditions for a more beautiful conversation is a gift that you can offer to the world (including the world of work). It is not one that you are born with, but rather that you develop and refine like a craft over time. I’ve been studying with the Centre for Conflict Resolution over the past year, and so I’m taking the liberty of sharing salient points that bring the art into how we approach situations where the dialogue feels entangled or messy.
Here are seven fundamentals that resonate with me.
- Acknowledge. To get this right you need to start with listening and trying to ‘hear’ the other person. There is a difference between acknowledgment and agreement. Particularly important is acknowledging emotions. In some cases, tension is already diffused just by this simple act.
- Test your assumptions. Judgemental approaches cause people to become defensive. Observe. Try to understand facts. Neutrality does not mean disinterest. Nor does seeking to get facts imply condoning. Humility makes us ask: How do I know what I know is true? How open am I to hearing about another point of view? Sometimes how wrong you are about someone else’s motivations can humble you. Imagine we approached conversations with the intent to discover more. It’s not an invalidation of what we bring, but rather a commitment to be open to what we can learn from one another.
- Frame a problem as an ‘it’, not a person or a you. Here’s an example: “You are lazy.” versus “There is a lot of work to be done. How should we do it?”
- Shift the focus from the past to the future. What you’ll notice about point 3 is the focus is already shifted forward and on finding a way through.
- Try to keep in mind that we all have the same basic needs. We have different interests arising from those needs. We use different strategies in getting those interests satisfied. What are your needs? What are the needs of the other person?
- Try not to avoid conflict. Leaning into a conversation is a chance to surface underlying issues and move through them in a positive way. Just signalling this intent voices a confidence that it can be done, even if you don’t get there in this moment. Issues often arise in other ways or at different times if they are never explored.
- Get curious about the conflict in your life. If it is cropping up across a variety of contexts, perhaps it is time to step back and ask yourself whether there’s a pattern or trend you want to unlock.
Imagine every word in conflict as an expression of hope, an act of courage, and an effort to reconnect. – Andre Vlok, Centre for Conflict Resolution
It is human to feel both passion and connection to the views of the world that shaped us into who we are. But we can attach our passion to the honest and humble conversation that brings us closer together, that deepens our levels of respect, perhaps even admiration, for each other. Through dialogue, there’s a chance we might discover and create that better way, to direct our energy in service of solving our biggest challenges.