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Courageous/Difficult Conversation

Courageous/Difficult Conversation

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand how to use courageous conversation to reduce/resolve personal conflicts and strengthen relationships

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Think about the last time you had a conversation with somebody about an issue that was really important to you, close to your heart, and you discovered they didn't agree with you. They had a totally different viewpoint on this issue. It was probably a difficult conversation to have. It's not easy. In fact, quite often when people find themselves in conversation with somebody who really has a widely different viewpoint on an important issue, it can lead to increased tensions and even conflict. So is it possible to have dialogue about these issues? Well, I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about something called courageous and difficult conversations.

Difficult conversations, we all know what they are. How is it possible to have one and be productive? I think the first thing to understand is that a courageous conversation, the goal of it is not to change opinions or even get people to agree with you. The goal is to achieve some mutual understanding between the parties. The goal is to shift perspectives and the way you interact with people. The conversation should lead to this increased understanding.

Because I think quite often, one of the biggest problems when there are polarizing issues is that both parties tend to demonize the other party, label them. And through that labeling and demonizing, we lose our humanity. So if we can come together and talk and speak to one another respectfully, it can do a lot to restore harmony and reduce conflict.

How do you have one of these conversations? Well, you don't do it in the heat of the moment. If there's been a provocative event, whatever it is-- somebody said something, somebody did something that elicited strong emotion-- this is not the time to sit down and try to have a courageous conversation. Emotions are too high. If you're going to have a conversation like this, it's important to do it when both parties are calm and both parties have agreed to come together with the goal of achieving mutual understanding and restoring respect in the relationship.

That's the beginning. If the parties decide to come together and have the conversation, how do you make it successful? How do you have this dialogue? Well, the first thing to do is to establish some ground rules. I'm going to write that down. Ground rules. Notice, I didn't write the ground rules. Very important, because the ground rules need to come from both parties. What does this side need? What does that side need? What do they need to conduct this conversation productively? And you generate a list from both sides that both sides can agree to and establish the ground rules. Ground rules are important. They come from both parties.

But there are some guidelines that both sides can follow in order to have a better conversation. The first one here-- suspending judgement-- very important. What do I mean by suspending judgement? It means not evaluating an idea, a person, a situation, suspending that evaluation and allowing each person to speak, to speak his or her truth. And if you're going to suspend judgment, that means that you accept that this is their truth. You don't have to accept it as your truth, but you're not going to evaluate them. You're going to hear them out. This is their truth.

I'm going to write something here, because it's so easy to assume that you know what someone is going to say on the other side. You've figured it out. You know where they're coming from when you don't. So don't assume you know what they're going to say. Let them speak.

You might want to ask clarifying questions to better understand the viewpoint. And listen actively. It's important to listen. I think oftentimes in these situations, we want to speak. We want people to understand us. It's just as important to understand the other side. And that can open up. When you're honestly opening yourself to listen and understand the other side, it can be reciprocated. So that side will be listening to you when you speak.

And when you do speak, use I statements. I statements. We have talked about I statements, where you own your feeling, you own what you want to say as your truth. And then it refrains from blaming or using you statements which can elicit a strong emotion from the other side. Suspending judgement, allowing everybody to speak for themselves, listening actively-- these are all important tools that you can use to have this difficult conversation.

Have there been any successes here? Yes, there have been. Actually, I think of one-- the Public Conversations Project out of Boston has been conducting difficult conversations like this around the country with a variety of groups. Their first one some years ago was with members of both pro-life and pro-choice who agreed to come together, and over many years, actually, continued to have conversations which the intent was not to change the viewpoint. And they didn't change the viewpoints in terms of what people believed. But what came out of that was a real shift in perspective in how each side viewed the other side. And each side became much more thoughtful about the rhetoric, the words they used to describe the other side. So it did a lot to de-escalate the conflict here and to reach mutual understanding.

It's possible for families to have discussions about this around difficult issues such as end of life. If you have a family member with a terminal illness, perhaps you're considering hospice care. You have to deal with these conversations that people don't want to have, that are emotional, difficult for families. It's possible to have dialogue, to have this courageous conversation.

Or there have been groups who have had this conversation in churches around the subject of homosexuality, which can be a contentious issue when people are on opposite sides. Or it could be around immigration. These are very hot-button issues where people can become polarized. But it's possible to come together and have a conversation that will change your views on how you see the other side and how you interact with the other side.

Thank you for joining me. I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Courageous Conversation

A conflict resolution process intended to help build mutual understanding between parties with different perspectives or beliefs about highly contentious issues.

Provocative Event

A statement or action drawing into focus people's differences of belief on highly contentious issues, usually eliciting a strong emotional response.

Suspending Judgment

Refraining from evaluating an idea, situation or person.