Let's Talk: How to Engage in Difficult Conversations

Posted by Deborah Farmer Kris on Apr 9, 2019 10:12:59 AM

In our polarized political climate, how can we help students engage in constructive dialogue? To communicate without attacking? Even if two parties do not change their views, can they change the way they relate to one another? Do we reduce people to their opinions, or do we see their full humanity?

Each spring, Montrose faculty engage in a two-day intellectual retreat.  This year, we heard from Dr. Jenny Driver, who presented a workshop called “Dialoguing Across Divides.” Driver, a research physician and a professor at Harvard Medical School, is invested in helping doctors and patients communicate more effectively –  and in bringing these key skills to schools and families.

DriverJenny_AuDriver defined dialogue as “a conversation in which people who have different beliefs and perspectives seek to find mutual understanding.”  It’s the free-flow of meaning between two people –  a conversation that says, “I”m curious about you and you are curious about me.”

Good dialogue is “the ultimate form of respect,” said Driver. It reaffirms that you take the other person seriously and that you recognize their inherent dignity –  even when you have deep disagreements.

One way to bridge the divide is to share stories. Hearing people’s stories reminds us of our common humanity. It moves us away from arguments and data points and back to the person in front of us –  to their struggles, hopes, and life experiences.

Dialogue picAccording to neuroscientist Tali Shalot’s research, the best way to influence people is not impersonal data points but human connection – finding common ground.  For example, two people may have very different views about education policy, but at the core, they both want their children to thrive academically. Shalot writes, “If we want to affect the behaviors and beliefs of the person in front of us, the first thing we need to do is figure out what goes on inside their head. The good news is that the human brain has a remarkable ability to think about what another person is thinking and feeling.”  That is, if we take the time to really listen. As Stephen Covey points out, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

As Driver spoke, I thought of Dr. Robert Coles, the renowned child psychologist who worked with six-year-old Ruby Bridges as she courageously crossed angry mobs to become the first African-American child to integrate into her elementary school. As a young resident, Coles had a mentor who gave him this vision of what it means to be a good doctor, “The people who come to see us bring us their stories. They hope they tell them well enough so that we understand the truth of their lives.  They hope we know how to interpret their stories correctly. We have to remember that what we hear is their story.”

Real dialogue is healing, said Driver. In fact, her favorite metaphor for dialogue is “mending . . . or sewing people together.” As we seek to help our students engage in meaningful civil dialogue, we have to self-examine and think about what we are modeling. Here are some reflection questions that emerged from our conversations:

  • When I am in a heated discussion, am I seeking to understand or to “win” (whatever that means)?
  • Am I ever so busy composing my response that I neglect to fully listen to others?
  • Do I ever minimize, dismiss, or feel superior to people who hold views different than my own?
  • Do I run away from difficult dialogue when engaging in it could strengthen my relationships?
  • When I am talking to others, am I fully present – or am I consistently distracted?

Dialogue begins in curiosity, said Driver.  If we can put down our armor long enough to be truly curious about the people in front of us -- what motivates them, their stories, their deeply held beliefs -- we take one step closer to bridging the divide. As the poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”


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