Tag Archives: Difficult Dialogues

Yes Dialogue Is Hard. Here Are Some Resources.

If we are going to live well together, we need to learn how to talk with each other.  Not at each other, not past each other, but with each other. This is hard to do because it’s not how we’re taught.

We’re often taught to assert our views and to dismiss those with which we disagree. The patterns of debate, deflection, distortion, and simple dismissal regularly appear in the news, social media, political discourse, and even in many day to day interactions. We need new patterns.

Here are some resources that can help:

  • Having difficulty talking with friends and relatives about race and social justice?  Review “White Allies: Your Anger Belongs in the Streets, Not at Home” by Dr. David Campt. He clearly summarizes what not to do, and provides a 5 step process for more productive dialogue.
  • Do conspiracy theories derail your attempts at dialogue?  Review “How to Talk to Conspiracy Theorists and Still Be Kind” by Tanya Basu in the MIT Technology Review. She too gives you some clear guidelines for engagement.
  • Not sure what productive dialogue looks like? Review the programs, tips and tools at Braver Angels, a group working to “depolarize America”.
  • Need some practice in a low risk environment?  Once again we recommend the New York Times “Angry Uncle Bots.”

All these resources illustrate that dialogue starts with relationship – you have to care for and value your connection with those you wish to engage.  Dialogue also requires respect for views that differ from yours. This doesn’t mean agreement with those views,  but it does mean showing an interest in and willingness to consider what others have to say.  And dialogue requires self-control.  Yes it may feel good in the moment to rant or vent, but that will only set you back.  Scoring “points” through clever put downs and firing off the evidence supporting your position will only invite defensiveness.  What does work is listening, asking questions that show both your care for and your interest in the person you are talking to, and reflecting back your understanding of what you have heard before sharing your own thoughts.

Yes dialogue is hard, and you can do this!

If you have questions you would like to ask about dialogue or additional resources you would like to share, post comments below or send us an email at info@buildingdialogue.com.

Navigating DIfficult Dialogues: Phrasing Is Key

As a culture, we easily fall into “power based” patterns in our discussions.  Don’t believe me? Try filling in the blanks in this simple test:

  • “I’m right and you’re____.”
  • “It’s my way or the _____.”
  • “I’m going to talk and you’re going to sit there and ____.”
  • “You’re with us or _____.”

The ultimate question underlying all of these phrases is of course, “who is the winner, and who is the loser”? No-one wants to be the loser.

These power-based patterns occur in subtler forms:  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “That is just stupid.” “Everyone knows …” “Yes, but …” Underlying all of these statements is the “right/wrong, winner/loser” dynamic. And that dynamic, in whatever form it is used, erodes trust; invokes negative emotions like disgust, anger and fear; and invites push-back. This is the dynamic behind our increasing partisanship, and inability to talk through difficult issues even with (or especially with) friends and family.

For these reasons, consciously avoiding “power-based” framing is a first step in talking through a difficult issue. The dialogue patterns of listening, reflecting, sharing, and inviting invoke very different responses than the “patterns of power.” This is because they accept the other person’s thoughts and feelings as sincerely offered and avoid the “winner-loser” dynamic.

Here’s an example of how that works in practice:  Recently at a wedding, I joined a conversation between a younger relative (liberal) and an older family friend (conservative) which quickly became strained.  The relative had observed that political decisions were often hypocritical, referencing conservative politicians who sought storm aid for their states having previously opposed such aid for New York City in the wake of a hurricane.  The friend responded that the denial of aid was justified “because no US citizens currently live in NYC”.

This was a surprising assertion to me because much of my family (all native-born US citizens!) live in NYC.  However, I could see that both were upset and the discussion was likely to get out of hand if I approached it as a question of “right or wrong”.  So I said to the family friend, “I can tell this issue is very important to you” (acknowledgement), and “I am curious where you got that information, could you tell me more?” (invitation).  That prompted him to talk about a news station he watched, and as we continued to listen, his concerns with over-reliance on government spending and immigration.  I then said “Sometimes it’s hard to know what information to rely on” (acceptance), “although your statement surprised me because much of my family lives in NYC” (sharing).

This exchange in turn led to a question of how my family fared in the hurricane, and then to a discussion of where he had been raised, why he had left, and how reliance on government welfare had undercut his family and the community he once lived in.  During this discussion, the relative was able, in a low-key way, to share information on how statistics were often mis-used, common assumptions that research had proved wrong regarding net givers and takers in various states, and other factual information, without any push-back.  We ultimately all agreed that if “ordinary Americans” had more opportunities to sit down and just talk, much could be learned and many problems could be solved. The conversation ended on a friendly tone, and when the friend saw both me and the relative at another wedding several weeks later, he greeted us warmly.

We need not agree on facts and policies or even values to communicate with one another.  We do, however, have to do something more than assert our own point of view.  We have to have a desire to understand and to connect.  The compassion for, and interest in others that underlie effective dialogue help us to connect.




Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Phrasing and Planning

Among the questions asked by my students at the beginning of the semester were the following:  “how can you explore the space between two extremes” and “how can you teach the polarized combatants that the best solution may not be as simple as “yes” or “no”?” They had had ample experience with, and wanted to change the pattern of,  conversations that quickly degenerate from an exchange of views to insults (“didn’t know you were that stupid . . .”) or identity questions (“didn’t know you were one of them”/”so liberal . . .”/”so reactionary . . .”).  Students from other countries were particularly taken aback by this kind of response to a perspective shared from their own experience.

Our classes on dialogue, conflict analysis, and conflict mapping helped the students to answer these questions and to build the skills needed to facilitate the final sessions on gun violence.  Students learned and practiced the dialogue skills of reflective listening, reframing, and asking open-ended questions. The students also used the “pie chart” illustration of sources of conflict, “iceberg” chart of levels of conflict, and conflict maps, to analyze in advance where participants were likely to differ, the different language and framings used for different positions, and how that language might be reframed to best support the participants and invite their participation.

As a result of this analysis, the student facilitators were more confident intervening both to support participants by reflective summarizing, and to open conversations by using questions to link related points. They were able to listen and summarize in ways that educated the participants,  promoting more productive discussion (e.g, “so freedom of choice is important to you (1st person), and you (2nd person) want freedom to make choices about your child’s classroom.”) In addition, this pre-session analysis  helped the facilitators to maintain the dialogue boundaries for the individual sessions (e.g., when responding to a participant who was advocating for a particular solution at an early session: “we are not here tonight to debate solutions, although we are exploring the issues of cost and safety. You have strong concerns on . . .”).

Despite the dialogue training in class, the students who were participating in the discussions (as opposed to facilitating) did, as the discussions heated up, at times fall into more traditional positional framings (e.g., right/wrong; us/them; good/bad). Several also stated their views strongly, using associated rhetorical flourishes (e.g., “who wouldn’t agree? “all the studies show”,  “the only valid studies show”, “everyone knows”, only a fool would”).   Yet when this happened, most participants failed to take the bait, using both humor, questions, and another dialogue technique  — “I statements with invitations” ( example “I have had a different experience, do you mind if I share it?”) — to continue the dialogue.

The “superintendent” was particularly effective at introducing new information in a non-threatening way, using such introductory phrases as “something that troubles me is . . .”, “I’m not sure of the effect that would have on [then naming a cost category like insurance, additional training, amending the collective bargaining agreement, etc.].  At other times he framed his remarks by inviting others to help with a problem that would need solving [“how would we respond to that concern? (referencing a parent’s comment that they would not allow their children in the classroom if the teacher were allowed to carry a gun)].  Other participants also used phrasing that drew others into agreement including an observation that “we don’t want to be an experiment” and a question: “if we’re going to have to raise money, what is the best way to spend it?”

Through this process the students were able to directly experience how responsive phrasing that demonstrates respect and care for the speaker, leads to better listening and understanding for all participants, and ultimately to more informed choices by the group.


Sequencing Public Engagement -Do We Have Time?

One objection often made to using a sequenced series of engagement steps is that it “takes time.” Although it does take some additional planning time and energy, separating and sequencing different types of dialogue can save considerable time and energy over the long run. Each of the dialogues in our three session sequence on gun violence took less than two hours.   The first helped frame the discussion and allowed the participants to begin to get to know each other.  Some of those who had strongly worded opinions also had a sense of humor and calmed down as quickly as they ramped up.  This kind of relationship knowledge helped participants move through the more difficult dialogues that followed.  The second session produced a lot of information and questions that challenged pre-existing opinions and promoted thinking about new approaches as participants prepared for their more deliberative session.  In the third session participants were able to come to a mutual — and sustainable — decision on how to move forward.

Successful resolution of complex issues requires integrative thinking about several different factors –  information, interests, values, and rules or standards. Integrative thinking takes time.  Sequencing discussions can provide the necessary time for new ideas and options to emerge.  Effective integrative thinking within a group also takes trust in the others that you are making decisions with. Without trust, information is discounted and risk to one’s personal interests is likely to take precedence over the effects on others in the community. Simply put, building trust requires an effort to build relationships.

One of the facilitators in our third dialogue later noted that “there were polar viewpoints on the options. However, due to the set-up of introducing the options, the groups were able to become more in agreement on the issues.”  The overall sequencing of the more informal dialogue based processes to the more formal deliberative process helped to  both build relationships and promote integrative thinking. The more informal structures that were used in the first two sessions did this in part by giving more freedom of choice for each individual in how to raise issues or express opinions. This freedom of choice helps to lessen fear and regulate emotion as compared to premature deliberation. The informal structures further allowed participants to surface and explore tensions between values such as accountability v. autonomy v. safety, as well as to share information.  Time between sessions allowed participants to assimilate new information, talk with other constituents, and integrate their thinking on options and trade-offs.

This type of sequencing, with time off between sessions, actually lessens the overall in-person time need for groups to come to agreement, allows for better option development, and promotes more productive deliberations at the time deliberative thinking is required.  It is far more likely to result in sound and sustainable policies.  Given those benefits, it is well worth the time.