This opinion piece about civility in politics got me thinking about kindness. How can we learn to be more understanding with those we disagree with?
Columnist Dave Brooks gives practical tips on curating difficult conversations you have face-to-face, whether that’s with a group of a few or dozens of people.
Scramble the chairs, he says. Put them in a giant pile and have people draw them apart and set them up themselves, which engages everyone in an act of physical collaboration. Then go around the room and have everyone share how they got their name, which draws them into talking about their family which can put people “in a long-term frame of mind,” and help everyone understand they share the same essential values.
I think these are fascinating! These two simple acts automatically backpedal the “us vs. them” mentality and force a group to see the other people sitting there as people.
I understand why disagreements over ideology can feel so personal. Brook’s quote sums it up well:
Most disagreements are not about the subject purportedly at hand. They are over issues that make people feel their sense of self is disrespected and under threat. So when you’re debating some random topic, you are mostly either inflaming or pacifying the other person’s feeling of tribal identity.
So what can you do when tensions are running high? What if you’re not having the conversation face-to-face?
Brooks recommends this as an all-purpose question: “Tell me about the challenges you are facing?” This helps guide the group over the blame-assigning portion of the problem and toward the solution. By going straight to the challenges, you can go into what Brooks calls “a possibility conversation…[to] use the assets you have together to create something good.”
If things begin to break down and get heated in the conversation, I like to remember what Steven Covey teaches: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” I do this by asking the other person to help me understand their issue. I listen til they are finished talking, then I repeat back what I think I heard. They will either confirm that I got it right or correct the misunderstanding.
Then, when I’m sure I understand them, I’ll ask them if they’d like my feedback or my view. If they say yes, I will calmly explain my view and be careful to respect their feelings.
It may take a few cycles of going back and forth repeating the same format. If the conversation is still getting heated, I suggest we take a break and come back to it and I suggest a time to reconvene the conversation so they won’t feel like you are abandoning them in frustration or shutting them down.
Remember: in order for people to be receptive to your views, they need to feel that you are genuinely listening and trying to understand.
Above all, remember that you are all human beings. Go into a disagreement assuming that most people are doing the best they can with what they have.
Also remember that our burdens tend to be remarkably similar! Everyone carries similar worries around with them, whether that’s a struggling relationship or a physical limitation or how to keep the lights and water on.
If you can remember that people you disagree with are people, just like you, it can help bring some compassion into the conversation.