Healthy conversations on hard topics

BUSINESS MATTERS (BEYOND THE BOTTOM LINE) - Francis J. Kong - The Philippine Star

(Part 1)

This will be a two-part series. I have discovered excellent materials and cannot dump all of them in one day and thus I will have to present them in two parts.

Family fighting. Friends becoming enemies. Workmates hating each other. Managers losing the trust of their teams. Church members forming factions and groups denouncing each other “casting them out of demonic possessions,” etc., because people do not know how to carry out healthy conversations. Others were not conversing; they were shouting and screaming in person as on social media; cursing, mocking, and cussing, and unfortunately, no conversation was happening. In hindsight, the last electoral exercise offers lessons for us to learn when it comes to hard conversations, especially with people who do not share the same opinions as ours.

Communications expert Joe Terrell shares some ideas. I have embellished it with a little bit of personal commentary.1 Terrell says we need to begin with this thought in mind:

1. We are not an expert on anything (and if we are, we are probably not arguing about it).

The true experts are quiet, but they are studying and observing. They know that honest pursuit of knowledge results in humility, not self-righteousness indignation. Experts know that the more they learn about a topic, the more they understand how much more there is to know about the same topic.

Everybody deals with the “EGO PROTECTION DRIVE.”

This is our brain’s attempt to rescue us from feeling embarrassed or looking stupid. It will go out of its way to focus on information that confirms our beliefs while ignoring information that challenges them. We have biases, and we seek to confirm them.

Acknowledging our personal biases and limitations is the first step toward a constructive dialogue.

2. Set realistic expectations.

It is notoriously difficult to change someone’s mind.

Try to approach every interaction — whether online or in-person — with the goal of changing someone’s mind by at least 10%.

Whether speaking or writing, or posting a remark, try to assess the outcome of the remark: Do my words sound overtly antagonistic? Does it have the potential to be demeaning or hurtful to other people? Am I demonizing those who think differently than me? Do I leave the door open for more conservation, or am I assuming the final word?

Terrell says: that your rationale for holding and voicing certain beliefs may have more to do with personal values that influence behavior or affect our day-to-day life. It’s vital that you’re able to spot the difference:

* Value signaling (I’m a good person because I believe _____) .

* Identity formation (I’m the type of person who believes _____).

* Tribal alignment (I’m part of a group that believes _______).

3. Practice and deploy strategic listening.

During the initial stages of the conversation, we should be doing more listening than talking. By doing this, This way we set a tone of cooperation rather than antagonism.

Here are a few questions that can help you root out someone’s motivation:

* Can you tell me more about (______)?

* What personal experiences led you to that conclusion?

* Have you had any personal experiences that have challenged that assumption?

* When did you start thinking or feeling (________)?

* What do you think it would take to change your mind about (_____)

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes, “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way — deeply and intuitively — you might even find your own mind opening in response.”

Treat the first part of the conversation like a research project.

4. People are more than the issues they believe.

The world would be easier if everyone I disagreed with was a terrible person. But that’s not the case.

Do not look at others who disagree with us as villains and dumb people. I tend to think that we are all experts but only in different subject matters. We should assume the best motivations behind someone’s actions and beliefs before we assume the worst.

So, there you have it—our first part material on carrying on a healthy conversation on hard topics and dealing with hard hearts. Terrell is sharp, and these ideas would be helpful in training people on how to handle hard but healthy conversations.

We will continue tomorrow.



(Francis Kong runs his highly acclaimed Level Up Leadership 2.0 Master Class Online this July 5-7. For inquiries and reservations, contact April at +63928-559-1798 or and for more information, visit www.levelupleadership.ph)


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