He sat quietly, just looking at her. His head cocked, eyes wide with disbelief. In a pained voice filled with disgust
“I cannot believe you did that” he said.
“Of course I did!” she replied defensively. “I did it to protect all of us. It’s the right thing to do”
Tears started to well up in her eyes as the conversation continued to go south. How could they have come to this point? How is it possible that this conversation had devolved so quickly into contempt and animosity.
Sadly, the above exchange is based on a true story. Equally sad is that it is likely not that surprising to you. Amongst all the nuances and complexities of the many societal issues we face, it appears that we seek to reduce everything down to 1’s and 0’s. Binary. Right or wrong. Left or Right. Black or White. Us vs. Them.
We see this more and more and it is destroying relationships, lives and communities at large because we do not seem to know how to have respectful conversations. It appears that the human race has forgotten how to make space for dissenting opinions. We forget that our ‘Truth’ does not negate somebody else’s ‘Truth’. In our quest for simplicity we stop acknowledging the complex paradigm that says there can be multiple truths.
When I was recently asked to write this piece I immediately recognized the importance of this topic. While I am not one to suggest I have all of the answers, I have long recognized that often the value is less in finding the right answer but rather in asking the right questions.
I’m sure based on the title of the article you have likely come here with a position. If it is anything like most of the conversations I have witnessed over the past few months it is likely a strong position at that. It really feels like there is no more middle ground in any of the important topics we face as a society. Our inability to have conversations on opinions that are contrary to our own is something that I find truly frightening.
What follows are some of the things that I have found to be effective in my own conversations. I am also a guy that likes to understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ so I have done a fair bit of research to better understand my observations.
Strong Opinions, Loosely Held
This is a mental model or thought framework often floated in tech circles. While the efficacy and value of the concept is widely debated I love this as a guiding principle for my own beliefs. It serves to remind me that there are more than two sides to almost every issue. It is my reminder to challenge what I believe on a regular basis.
Historically I have tended to be the kind of person that, once convinced of an idea, would hold tightly to that idea. In many cases I would hold fast to an idea or belief far longer than was useful.
So when I was introduced to the phrase “Strong opinions, loosely held” it became a very powerful mantra that allowed me to hold fast to my overarching values while still actively challenging my beliefs.
This doesn’t mean that I easily discarded my beliefs. It simply means that I continually challenge them. In that scenario one of two things happen. Either I realize that my belief is erroneous and I can let it go in good conscience or I solidify that belief even further.
Keeping this mantra top of mind in conversations like the vaccine debate allows me to more readily practice some of the techniques we will discuss through the rest of this article.
High Conflict vs. Good Conflict
In her book “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped, and How to Get Out”, Amanda Ripley talks about the difference between “High conflict” and ‘Good conflict’.
The author suggests that “Good Conflict” is productive and actually goes somewhere. It is that ongoing challenge of ideas and thoughts that ultimately lead to growth. After all, if there is zero conflict, no friction at all anywhere, then we are often left with stagnation. It is important to understand that conflict in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.
“High Conflict” on the other hand is not productive and is the destination itself. It is the kind of conflict where one or both parties dig their heels in so deep that there is no moving the needle in any direction. There is no productive discussion and usually ends with name calling.
Unfortunately, more often than not when it comes to polarizing issues, such as the COVID vaccine, it is very easy to find ourselves in “High Conflict”.
Add to that the fact that ‘High Conflict’ is what sells. It sells movies, it sells magazines and news media. There are many institutions who rely on ‘High Conflict’ to provide massive revenue streams and as a result have a vested interest in ensuring that, as a society, we perpetuate this negative form of conflict.
While none of this may be new information to you, I always find it useful to recap where we are and where we want to get to. For me it makes it easier to recognize when i am somewhere I don’t want to be (High Conflict) reminding me to take the steps to move to where I do want to be (Good Conflict)
How Do We Have Respectful Dialogue?
Well first off it is important to understand that, in a two way conversation, you really only have control of 50% of the equation. What I propose below presupposes that you have an interest in engaging in a dialogue. You may find that in some scenarios it simply is not worth the time and effort participating in a conversation that cannot be moved from high conflict to good conflict. I would also suggest if you are starting from a place of intent to change another’s mind you may be setting both of you up for failure.
There are lots of positives that can come out of good conflict coupled with respectful dialogue so if you choose to engage here are some ways I would suggest you approach it.
Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism that means “beginner’s mind”. It refers to having an attitude of eagerness, openness and a willingness to drop any preconceived notions. Even when dealing with complex subject matters regardless of the level of expertise one might have.
One of my favorite quotes on the subject comes from the Zen Monk Shunryu Suzuki:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”Shunryu Suzuki
When one is well versed in subjects such as vaccine efficacy and/or safety it can become very difficult to put this concept into practice. It is easy to believe that our vast array of knowledge means that we do definitively know the answer. While at the end of the conversation we may still hold fast to our knowledge and therefore our conclusion it is rarely a useful place to start the conversation from.
If we truly care about the conversation and the person on the other side of it, it is critical to practice the art of Shoshin with earnestness.
While closely related to my last point, curiosity is really the lynchpin for productive conversation. When we start with that Beginner’s Mind mindset we can come in with genuine curiosity, seeking to gain understanding of the other side of the conversation.
In his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Steven Covey’s habit 5 is very useful here. Covey says “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
So often we go into a conversation with the intent to make our point understood. Flipping that around is a powerful driver for conversation. Curiosity is what gets us there.
Curiosity is high on my list of values and as with all my top values I like to create a mantra I can grab onto when I need to live those values.
This is my mantra when it comes to curiosity. It reminds me that as soon as I start to feel judgmental, it is time to put on my curiosity hat.
There is a big difference between the inner dialogue of
“Why the F do they believe that?!?”
“Hmmmm…. I wonder why they believe that?”
I would suggest the latter is far more productive. One of my favorite books on coaching is “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier. His mantra around curiosity is to stay curious just a little bit longer. So when it comes to potentially High Conflict conversations ask yourself that question. “Where can I stay curious just a little bit longer?”
Facts don’t matter
When we are discussing hot button issues such as vaccines you may be tempted to arm yourself with facts in order to persuade the other person of your point of view. As it turns out once an individual has formed an opinion their beliefs are remarkably perseverant.
I found an interesting article in the New Yorker that talks about why facts do not matter. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds
Peter Boghossian talks about The backfire effect in his book “How to Have Impossible Conversations”. The Backfire Effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject evidence that challenges their belief. This bias will often cause them to strengthen rather than soften their original stance.
If using facts changed peoples minds then everyone would believe the same thing based on the facts. We know this is not true for a number of reasons. Over the years I have learned that for the most part, in difficult conversations facts are not really relevant.
Acknowledge the nuance
One of the techniques for moving from High Conflict to Good Conflict that Amanda Ripley talks about is to “complicate the issue”. That is to say that there is a lot of value in acknowledging the complexity of the issues. To acknowledge that none of us truly know enough about vaccines at this point in time.
Even the world’s foremost epidemiologists disagree on certain points. When you acknowledge the complexity of issues you create space for discussion. You remove the ones and zeros, allowing for more nuanced conversation and potentially an opportunity to find middle ground.
That’s Right vs. Your Right
According to Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference, your goal in any high conflict conversation should be to get the other side to say “That’s right” instead of looking for them to say “your right”. The idea is to make certain that they know that you have heard them and understand their point of view. This doesn’t mean that you agree with them it simply means that you have truly heard them. When people feel like they have been heard they are much more receptive to conversations.
In my experience this is a powerful way to slow down the conversation. Especially if things are starting to get heated. We can do this by restating what we understand to be the other side’s position. This is an active listening skill that has been taught for decades and is incredibly useful in high conflict conversations. For example in a highly charged vaccine conversation you might provide feedback like:
“It feels like you are saying that you believe there is a microchip in the vaccine and that terrifies you. Is that right?”
“It feels like you are suggesting that you are comfortable taking the vaccine because you trust the scientists who have created it. Is that right?”
Feedback questions like the above are a great way to slow down the conversation and also open up an opportunity to get curious a little bit longer. The key is to be genuine in your approach. Restating someone’s opinion with exaggerated sarcasm never moves a high conflict conversation to a good conflict one.
Bringing it all together
The above techniques work really well to create meaningful conversations when used with authenticity. If you take nothing else away from this article I would suggest that the most powerful piece is to simply drop judgement and replace it with curiosity.
Understand that while all of these pieces may sound simple, they are not always easy to practice. So let’s practice and have some compassion for self and for others when we let our emotions get the best of us. I would love to hear from you what are some of the practices that you employ when you need to move a conversation from ‘High Conflict’ to ‘Good Conflict’?