Often the toughest conversations offer the most important learning. Sometimes the conversations we work hardest to avoid, we most need to enter. Tough conversations can be hard to navigate and risky. So how do we “go there” in a healthy way?
Below are some tips for entering and staying with tough dialogue, drawn from 20 years of work in Dialogue Education. Tough dialogue ought not to be feared, but can bear gifts to those who dare the journey. Which of these tips best offers a way for you to stay longer in tough dialogue?
- Be genuinely curious. When we don’t want to learn, understand, or see the viewpoint of another, we won’t. Enter dialogue with open questions you really care about and with a real desire to “get” where the person is coming from and what is behind his/her position. Even more, enter dialogue hoping for clarity and information that may actually challenge your ideas in a healthy way and encourage personal positive growth.
- Don't focus on “winning.” When we enter to win, the dialogue can quickly become polarized and move us to take sides. Open and honest dialogue is not about winning a fight: it is about hearing each other, respecting one another’s’ viewpoints, and believing we can both move to a better place as a result of this interaction.
- Talk less, listen more. When we are passionate, especially when the person we are talking to is not as passionate as we might be, we can get excited and tend to talk faster and fill more of the time. This is normal. However, this can shut down the person we are with or make them defensive. Watch how much you talk, and know you will learn more by listening. It often takes courage to share what we are most passionate about. Work hard to invite people in; help them feel safe; ensure they know you are genuinely curious about their viewpoints. In other words, be quiet.
- Ask questions for understanding. There are many types of questions we can ask each other to encourage sharing, and closed questions aren’t one of them. Ask open questions to gain understanding: “What do you think about …” or “What has been your journey to ….” Ask digging deeper questions to ensure deeper sharing: “Tell me more about…” or “You mentioned…, what more can you tell me about that?” Ask powerful open questions: “What would you need to hear or see to have you …” or “What would have to change in your work or family to enable you to more fully ….” Asking these kinds of questions and taking time to truly hear the response tells the person you are with that you care and want to understand.
- Ask head and heart questions. Our beliefs and passions are directly and deeply connected to our heart and our emotions. When talking about issues we care and feel strongly about it is helpful to ask what people “think” about things as well as how they “feel” about them. Both will offer insights into the people you are with. Head and heart questions will shed light on “what” they believe and “why” they believe it — both are part of who we are as human beings.
- Be gentle. Talking about issues about which we care deeply is not easy, for either “side”. Know this is just a small piece of more discussions and sharing that needs to happen; believe that even if you just scratched the surface it was all that was needed at that time; know that if the dialogue was respectful, seeds have been planted and there will be other opportunities to further our learning journeys.
- Prepare yourself. We don’t always know when we will enter tough or challenging dialogue. However, when you are aware this will happen, preparing yourself for it is wise. Calm yourself, know deep listening will be needed, and enter the dialogue with genuine curiosity.
- Stay humble. We all know and believe what we do because of our personal experiences, education, faith, family, and environment. Since this is unique to each of us, it makes sense that our beliefs are also our own. We all have insights to offer others and also have much to learn. Enter with humility and know life is a journey of surprising discovery.
- Trust God. We do our best and need to trust that God is present to work in our hearts and minds to help clarify, move us to repent, and help us repent. The time will come for each of these for all of us.
Entering into dialogue with someone about challenging topics that are important to us can be rewarding.Which of these tips would help you to do so more often?
Thanks for learning with us! How will you put what you've learned into practice? We invite you to pray along with us that the Spirit will move at Synod 2016 and that delegates and those watching the proceedings from afar will engage with each other in ways that build up the Body of Christ, honor the image of God in all people, and make for respectful dialogue.