Productive Discussion in the Midst of the Madness

In the midst of our current political climate and the deep divide that seems to be driving our interactions recently, there is a component of human interaction that I find myself desperately longing for- intelligent, calm, considerate discussion. These days it feels like most people are just stating their opinions loudly and aggressively at each other rather than keeping an open mind and coming to the table seeking to truly understand. It’s tough to do, especially when the issues at hand are emotional and personal and have real lived consequences in people's lives. But, as much as I wish that loudly stating my opinion the same way over and over again could change somebody’s mind about an issue, that’s just not how it works. I believe change happens in the context of relationship, and productive conversation happens when both parties are willing to come to the table as active listeners with open minds and hearts, working together to seek truth. Despite any level of disagreement I may have with a significant portion of our nation, I believe that the people engaged in the current political rhetoric are, for the most part, well-intentioned and believe that what they are fighting for is good and is the truth. As Leslie Knope so eloquently says in the very first episode of NBC’s Parks & Recreation, ‘What I hear when I’m being yelled at are people caring loudly at me”. The thing I think we so often get tripped up on is keeping an open mind. To be honest, I’ve been as guilty as the next person- sorry y’all. I get so tired of saying the same thing over and over again, only to have it fall on what seems like deaf and angry ears. It feels like I am banging my head against a brick wall and after you do that enough, the only thing you can really do is be loud and aggressive and close-minded. It's so easy to let these interactions start to run wild. 

Luckily, I live with a man who challenges my stubbornness frequently and pushes me to keep an open mind and be a lot kinder to the people I encounter. My husband is one of the most thoughtful people you could ever hope to meet. I don’t mean thoughtful in the “he brings me flowers” for no particular reason sort of way. I mean thoughtful in the sense that he rarely rushes to judgement. Before coming to a firm conclusion about anything, he thoroughly and thoughtfully considers all sides, carefully weighing the good and the bad of each, listening to how people think/feel/experience the issue. Even once he has drawn a conclusion and feels deeply about something, he remains open. It’s a skill I’m not sure he understands the value of, especially in a culture filled with people who know that they are right. A few years ago he started saying this phrase and it has become sort of a mantra for us- “hold everything in tension”. Basically what that means is every belief and idea should be held loosely enough that it’s malleable by new experiences, truths, and ideas. Even the things we know as absolute today can shift if new evidence comes our way. Sure, there are beliefs we will carry with us for a lifetime, and that’s fine, but there are others that as we grow and experience life and learn that we may need to shift or throw out altogether and I think we have to be open to that. If we could keep this concept in mind when approaching a tough conversation, I think we'd spend more time in productive discussion and less time in heated disagreement.  

Next time you come to a tough discussion or disagreement, can I encourage you to do a few things in an effort to stay open minded and keep the interaction moving forward productively? 

  1. Do your best to check your emotion at the door. This is hard, but when we are in a state of heightened emotion, our brains struggle to think logically. We generally aren't great listeners or communicators when we are fired up.  

  2. Be an active listener. Even if what the person is saying is completely bat shit crazy, hear them out because when it's your turn to speak, you want them the hear you out. Most importantly, listen to understand, to empathize, don't just listen to formulate your counter-point. 

  3. If disagreeing, be critical of the belief, not the person. Nothing is more alienating than being insulted or having your character questioned. Too often we begin to demonize the person rather than their idea- we call people racists instead of calmly saying "what you just said is racist and here's why". Once we've questioned their character, it's unlikely we are going to move forward with a calm, engaging, thoughtful discussion. Sure, some people are terrible humans...but if we are trying to convince them of something, telling them how terrible they are isn't going to help. 

  4. Consider that you might be wrong or at least a little misguided. Listen, I often think I am absolutely right but sometimes I'm just not. There is no way for me to have all of the facts about every complex issue, especially if it's something I haven't experienced personally. It's just not possible. Part of engaging in a productive discussion is taking the information you've been given and carefully considering how it challenges/reconciles/impacts your own beliefs. You still may not change your mind, but you cannot lose by considering alternatives to your own thoughts and beliefs- only growth happens in that space. 

  5. If your point isn't getting across, don't just say the same thing louder and more aggressively. Try a different approach. There is more than one way to express anything, maybe you just haven't found a way to communicate the information in a format the other person can receive. 

  6. Know when you need to take a step back. If you are getting emotionally exhausted or too heated, it's okay to say "Hey, I really value this discussion and I want to continue it, but I need a breather to think about a few things. Can we pick it back up later?" Not everything has to be resolved in the midst of a complex conversation. Time and space can work wonders for everyone. 

  7. Know when to fold. Sometimes you just won't find the middle ground and you'll have to part ways without much of a resolution. That's okay. Maybe you'll never find common ground, or maybe you planted a seed that will lead to that person eventually shifting their thinking. It takes time and hard work to shift our views on things, especially when they are deeply engrained. You may never get to see the fruits of your tough conversation but that doesn't mean it was pointless. 

  8. Take care of yourself. The cultural and political climate we are in can be exhausting. Productive conversations can be exhausting. Give yourself time and space to fill your tank and check out, even if it's just for a few minutes. 

Here's to hoping for some meaningful, calm, and productive discussions. I believe it's possible and I believe it's worth the effort- for ourselves, for others, and for our nation. We can only move forward together if we work together. So, let's resist the urge to demonize or silence those who believe differently than we do. Resist the pull to turn a discussion into a heated disagreement. Resist the comfort of staying so deeply rooted in your own beliefs that you are incapable of growth. Resist the belief that it's too hard to find common ground.  Resist the urge to run from the hard work of productive dialogue. Dig deep. It will be worth it. I'm wholly convinced our future may rely on it.  

Artwork courtesy of Dustin Cowley (@cdcowley on Instagram)

Artwork courtesy of Dustin Cowley (@cdcowley on Instagram)