I grew up in a dark red state, loved deeply by people who hold a lot of resentment in their hearts for “others.” For years now, I’ve travelled in some of the most liberal areas of the country, bringing along that experience of rural, Southern culture. I’ve often been confronted by liberal folks with similar tones of voice and deeply held resentments for “others.” When I’m in my hometown, the “others” are my chosen friends. When I’m with my chosen friends, they sometimes “other” my family. I love them all, I see the humanity in them all, and I see that they both simply need help accessing deeper levels of empathy and understanding through respectful conversation with each other.
All political and social progress requires person-to-person conversation. I doubt the media will ever help us hold hands; We’re going to have to talk to each other. On top of tough conversations about race with my conservative family and heated conversations with liberal friends about vaccines, I’ve also spent a lot of time doing outreach to people about renewable energy and climate change legislation. That’s given me plenty of time for trial and error while learning how to have a productive conversation with someone who feels very different from me.
There are three simple tools I have learned as an outreach professional that always improve a conversation: Listen to understand, identify value systems, and learn a different vocabulary. Another important lesson I learned in my outreach career: Know when it’s better to leave the conversation.
If the conversation doesn’t feel safe and calm, the chances for effective communication plummet.
Something I remind myself of a lot is that I can’t expect people to have or gain peaceful communication skills if they are not modeled and consistently upheld. It’s equally unreasonable to expect that someone will be emotionally able to reflect on their beliefs if they aren’t given the benefit of respectful conversation.
When a conversation holds tension, aggressive tone, or blaming language, it helps to model peaceful and nonviolent communication. You can hold a baseline of peace by maintaining a curious and humble tone of voice. Often this will serve to de-escalate the emotions in the room.
Upholding a tone of peace can turn the tide of a conversation, but it doesn’t work every time. If the person you are talking to is being outwardly disrespectful, your energy is better saved for a respectful conversation. Excusing yourself from a conversation is a powerful tool you can use to communicate that certain behavior is unacceptable. “I can see that this topic is upsetting you. Let’s revisit it another time.”
If you find yourself challenged to hold a peaceful dialogue, especially if you are the one who is getting more emotional, a deep breath is another primary tool I can offer. Deep breathing is scientifically proven to emotionally regulate the nervous system, and can be an invitation for both parties to reflect for a few seconds. It takes practice to maintain the self-control necessary not to escalate emotionally when faced with views alternative to your own.
When you are able to hold a tone of peace you make space for listening. You not only open up your conversational partner to deeper levels of learning; you also open yourself to learning. When you can listen peacefully to a sentiment that astounds you, you may be able to hear the root causes of the sentiment. This will allow you to feel empathy and make connections that build solutions.
LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND
Once you’ve established a peaceful tone, the first step in any productive conversation is to listen and try to understand. It seems simple, but this is actually really hard to do. We all have our frameworks for reality and it is not easy to function outside of that. However, if you are not listening to understand outside of your own mental framework, then you are essentially talking to yourself.
In order to have a productive conversation with someone, it is crucial to compassionately access what they believe, and what experiences or education they have that lead them to those beliefs.
For example, I casually mentioned student debt relief to my grandmother and we ended up talking about how she believes that the military should be funded above all else. She does not believe that education and healthcare should be prioritized above the military. While having a conversation with her about this, I began to experience the physical signs of pre-escalation: tensing, elevated blood pressure, brain fog. These are my feelings, but clearly she has feelings too and they stem from somewhere.
Rather than immediately defending my own viewpoint, I chose to take a deep breath and ask her: “Why do you feel that way?” She lapsed into a painful memory of her childhood during World War II. She expressed the heavy burden she carried as a child worried about war coming to our country. She began to cry explaining that when she was eleven, she heard all the church bells ringing across the city and she knew the war was over. She wants the United States to have the strongest military so that we can feel safe.
This honestly gave me a new perspective. I myself have never worried that my home town would be bombed. That is partially because we have a strong military. I can understand why she holds the military as a higher priority than me. I hold education as a priority because I had the privilege to go to college and now hold student debt. If I hadn’t listened to her and engaged in self-reflection, I would have a poorer understanding of the issue at hand.
IDENTIFY VALUE SYSTEMS AND VOCABULARY
After you have listened to understand why someone believes what they believe, you will likely have heard some clues as to their underlying belief systems and heard the words they use to represent those values. Trying to argue with a deeply held value is not productive. However, acknowledging that value and applying it to a different perspective can be very effective.
For example, I previously worked as an Outreach Associate for Puget Sound Energy, and my job was to canvass door to door to give people the opportunity to sign up for the renewable energy program. PSE customers have the unique opportunity to choose to buy renewable energy credits rather than the standard mix of energy, which is largely coal and natural gas. We canvassed in the areas that had the lowest rates of participation. This meant we were often talking to people who did not view renewable energy favorably.
I walked up to a porch that had dip-spit containers on the railings and a pro-gun piece of metal-worked art hanging on the wall. A tall, imposing, unhappy middle-aged white man answered the door in his underwear. I went through my scripted schpeel about the options he has to invest in renewable energy through PSE, doing my best to offer it to him without assumptions that he wouldn’t want it despite the fact that he was scowling at me and crossed his arms in front of his chest while I was speaking.
He explained, “My grandfather and other great men built this country on coal. My dad worked in coal and I fed my family working for coal. Now people like you want to take jobs away from people like us. Well, I don’t like it and I don’t want it.”
It would be counterproductive for me to dismiss this man for having a different understanding of renewable energy and being a part of a culture that’s different from mine. I will not succeed in reaching out to him if I reject the things that matter to him. It’s also important that I use language that will matter to him, rather than language that matters to me. (Think: He feels underappreciated. He values family legacy. He wants to provide for his children. He has a distaste for environmentalism: choose vocabulary wisely.)
“Yessir, first let me say: Thank you for your hard work to keep this country moving. We use fossil fuels for just about everything. That’s why I do this work, because I want to make sure that our grandchildren don’t inherit a collapsing energy economy and I want them to have fossil fuels for the things that they are absolutely necessary for. The fact is, we need fossil fuels but we’re burning them faster than the Earth can make them. Why would we waste tons of coal to power our homes when we have other options? The way I look at it, if you invested in renewable energy, you would be the grandfather that started a new legacy and handed down a different job opportunity not only to your grandkids, but to their grandkids. Renewable power creates new jobs every year in Washington state.”
After a few minutes more of convincing, and another invitation to say yes, (“What do you say? Is it worth five dollars a month to give it a try?”) he signed up. He signed up! He. Signed. Up.
In order to see the whole truth, we have to be able to admit that we didn’t understand or that we were wrong. This takes extraordinary open-mindedness and humility. Let’s practice this.
We have something to learn from every person we encounter, especially the ones we judge to be on “the other side.” It does no good for humanity to deepen divides by creating resentment in conversations with people who are different. If we want a peaceful, well integrated, and educated society, we have to do the work to bridge the gaps.