Why Can’t We Converse with One Another?

It’s a tough time for conversations. The toxic national political environment is infecting interactions among friends, colleagues and neighbors.

We are having a harder time listening to one another and an easier time vilifying those who think differently than we do. Social media feeds the flames. Curiosity and compassion have gone AWOL. Conversations are fraught with fears about the future, anger about the past, and disbelief at how we got here.

The challenge for each of us—regardless of who we voted for or against—is to remember that how we talk with one another matters. We have big problems to solve and we need to be able to converse effectively with others to solve them. Why is this so hard right now?

First, for a variety of reasons, “alternative facts,” “fake news” and ad hominem arguments (criticizing the speaker instead of the message) are flooding the media. People are asking themselves, “What is true? Who can we trust?” Second, for many, everything they hold dear seems to be under attack (rule of law, the constitution, civil rights, the environment, et al).

This all creates immense uncertainty that draws out everyone’s worst fears and anxieties. This makes it tough to listen to or care about anyone who thinks differently than you do. Many are getting caught in reactive cycles of defensive fighting or fleeing. Here are three ways we get trapped:

  • We equate understanding with endorsing or agreeing. Because of this we argue with those who have a different opinion or avoid talking with them altogether.
  • We equate what we think with who we are. When people have radically different points of view, we feel threatened and want to defend our positions at all costs and attack those of others. Sometimes we even vilify them.
  • We believe the fear-stoking stories in our heads more than we believe what we are actually seeing and hearing. For example, when someone disagrees with your point of view you feel afraid they are going to retaliate by badmouthing your project or boycotting your business even though this has not happened.

Here are ways to avoid these traps:

  • Remember that understanding is an essential step to conversing constructively. Understanding does not mean endorsing or agreeing with what another person is saying.
  • Ask questions of genuine curiosity to deepen your understanding. Here are two favorites, “How did you come to see XXX this way?” Or, “How did you come to feel so strongly about XXX?” Then, listen like your life depended on it. It probably does.
  • And, other helpful questions from my good colleague Lauren Cob, “What are you seeing that makes you hopeful? How does this help you feel optimistic about the future?” Diligently restate what you hear to make sure you understand it accurately.
  • Remind yourself that you are bigger than your point of view or your reactions. You can notice when you are getting triggered and choose to pause and take a deep breath, listen, ask a genuine question, take a time out, and/or ask yourself, “What’s my highest, most enlightened intention?”
  • Don’t believe everything you think. When the stories in your mind start spinning and you start to catastrophize, pause, feel your feet on the ground, and ask yourself what you are actually seeing and hearing: “What is really going on right now?”

It is critical that we don’t allow ourselves to be swept up into a downward spiral of fear, anger, and fighting or fleeing. For the sake of our future, it is necessary that we not become like those who are using “alternative facts,” “fake news” and ad hominem attacks to protect their positions. If there ever was a time to enlist the help of our natural curiosity and compassion, and apply all the skills we have to create constructive conversations, it is now.

Mary’s book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available.  Click here to purchase it.

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