On Having Difficult Conversations

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It’s totally appropriate to challenge someone’s thinking. It’s not appropriate to call people names or get violent because of a disagreement. Religion, politics and race have a special tendency to spark confrontation. We can’t just ignore these topics or people we disagree with, though. So, how do we go about having difficult conversations? Here are a few tips;

  1. Summon your inner Sun Tzu (Art of War author) and decide if the battle is worth having. Some folks are so attached to their beliefs that they get angry when talking about them. Those people generally aren’t worth sparring with. Instead, ask questions, let them talk.
  2. Have a few phrases that can be delivered gently. “I think I’d push back on that,” when delivered in a soft tone can be an easy way to share an opposing view point without escalating tensions. Questions like, “Can you give me an example?” or “Could you explain that again?” can get the other person to talk more and shed light on their thought process. “My understanding of X is…” is a gentle way to state your point of view. Finally, the phrase, “let’s back up to where we agree” can keep a conversation on track and help both parties understand where the other is coming from.
  3. Be prepared to learn. Listen for new ways of digesting information and try to understand. If the goal of the conversation is to win an argument or convince someone to think like you do, it’s going to feel more confrontational.
  4. Convictions should be loosely held. Per legendary entrepreneur, investor and tweeter Marc Andreessen, “Strong convictions should be loosely held.” Meaning believe fully what you believe, but when someone changes your mind, be prepared to drop the old thought and sway in the new one.
  5. Separate your beliefs from your identity. It’s not enjoyable to have a crisis of identity. The lengths we go to avoid painful situations are astounding. If our beliefs are our identity, we’ll go to hell and back to avoid changing our mind and having an identity crisis.

These tips aren’t going to change the world by any means. Plus, they’re only useful if everyone plays by these or similar rules. Tough conversations will always be a piece of our lives and having a foundation to stand on for them will greatly improve our experiences with them.

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