“One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears — by listening to them.”
~Dean Rusk, former Secretary of State.
Crucial conversations are occurring across America today. Some people can have them, others can’t seem to figure it out. Seek out those who will have a civil discussion and start the party. If it’s your spouse, great. If it’s your best friend, go for it, you need the practice! If it’s your arch enemy or someone with whom you have stark differences, invite them in for the conversation that’s built on civil discourse and mutual respect.
It’s well past time! It’s imperative for you, your home, your church, your workplace, your gym, your next meeting, and your next gathering with family. If you’re apprehensive, it’s okay, but it’s time to step into the arena.
With that in mind, here are a few tips on setting up yourself and others for success when having those critical, sensitive conversations.
Sales 101 teaches you to do a needs analysis. In other words, find out the needs of your customer and that allows you to respond better with something that fits his or her situation. Today’s society has it backwards, and all too often, our conversations become one-sided, stilted and destructive. Everyone wants to be heard, speak first and often, rant and rave, and cast verbal denunciation without even taking the time to come off their mountain.
Frankly, we’re better than that, and our friends — and our enemies — deserve civil discourse. The idea of conversation is an exchange of ideas or thoughts. Exchange is the operative term in the definition. Listening is the lost art, but it’s required to have a conversation. If you’re interested, here a few tips for having your next conversation, especially if it is one of those crucial conversations.
Leave your agenda at the door. Yes, you have an agenda, everyone does. It’s your background, your upbringing, your personal history, your hurts, your dreams, and it’s usually the thing about which you talk most often and with great passion. You can discuss the things that are important to you without your agenda. The conversation will last longer, and you’ll learn and grow more.
Leave your politics at the door. Guess what? It really not important if you vote for this person or that party. At least to your conversation. I can assure you we won’t agree on all matters of politics, politicians, parties, presidents or Congress. These conversations should be reserved for healthy relationships and are guaranteed to torpedo early discussions with those you don’t know well.
Leave your personal expectations at the door. Your basic expectation should be to learn, not to make your point, be heard, debate or argue. It’s great to prepare with some questions to ask, but it’s not necessary to make a list of points/counterpoints you want to make in the conversation. In other words, get involved in the life of the person, without giving ultimatums, trying to win them over to your “side” or getting the last word. Benjamin Franklin said: “Tell me, and I forget, teach me, and I may remember, involve me, and I learn.”
Be open and establish the baseline for your conversation. This is where you let your discussion partner know that you will agree to disagree, but that your friendship is tantamount to any differences. Each of you can draw boundaries if necessary, but an open and honest exchange of ideas will push the discussion forward. Be steadfast: Losing the friendship is not an option.
Listen. And then listen some more. Malcolm Forbes says: “The art of conversation lies in listening.” Listening is a sign of respect. There’s a reason you have two ears and only one mouth! 1. Listen actively. In other words, hear what someone is actually saying, not what you think they’re saying. It’s difficult at times, be careful not to mix opinion, agenda and speculation while listening. 2. Bite your tongue! When someone says something that doesn’t line up with your thinking, it’s okay. You don’t have to go on the offensive or fire back with a tit-for-tat. It’s okay to have enough ammunition to blow someone out of the water, but keep your powder dry! Restraint and self-control are compelling traits. 3. Listen more than you talk. Enough said.
Ask questions. And then ask more questions. The more you focus on your conversation partner, the more likely the walls are to drop, and the more likely you’ll understand. Yes, I have questions too. My questions are real, and I’m after real answers, not a talking point or something that was cooked up by someone else. Tell me your story, your view, your observation and let’s have a conversation. Make your question just that — a conversation starter, not an attack or criticism or a setup for a gotcha moment.
Learn how to make a point without bashing someone else. This is actually a challenge! Can you do it? Can you make your point without mentioning a politician’s name or party or by leaving out the name of a friend or enemy or without using Fox, CNN or MSNBC? If your point is strong enough to stand on its own, and you really believe what you’re saying, make your point! You don’t need to blow out someone else’s candle to make yours burn brighter! Believe me, your message will come through louder and more precise without all the mutter and clutter of all the gratuitous and needless noise.
Don’t make demands or draw lines in the sand. Tell your story in a passionate way that brings empathy and understanding, without ranting, raving or threatening. That’s your mission. You aren’t going to change every mind, especially if your goal is to have a substantial conversation. We all have our way of doing that and inserting our opinions, demands and desires. But when you say that “you should have said…”, or “you didn’t do that the right way…”, or “if you don’t do this, I’m going to call you out”, or “do 1-2-3 or we’re done”, you sabotage the conversation and burn bridges. We have to be in the bridge-building business, not tearing down.
Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I don’t support you. We can — and will — see things differently politically, spiritually, culturally or intellectually…and we can still be friends. At least we should be able to do that, right? The Bible says we are to see through all the differences and love each other. Love doesn’t mean you agree with me, it means you respect me — and vice versa — and that I’m patient and I keep “no record of wrongs”. 1 Corinthians 13:7 says that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Can we stop with the stereotyping? Get to know me and please don’t put me in a box. Sorry, it’s a pet peeve. You may reach opinions of me once we’ve had a conversation, but you will also likely find that I’m unique and different from the other 61-year-old slightly-overweight, blond-grey haired white men that you know. Don’t put me in a pre-conceived category and I won’t put you in one either. I was born an original, and I don’t plan to die a copy!
This is not an exhaustive list of suggestions for a crucial conversation, and it’s not the most natural thing in the world. But, if you’ll take some of these to heart, I promise your discussion will last longer, you’ll feel better about it, and you won’t be exhausted or drained when you walk away. The best part though is that you’ll leave the door open for the next conversation.
Your civil discussion is based on mutual respect and consideration of others. I’m no expert, but we all have seen how not to do it, so let’s try something else. In closing, here are a few conversation starters for your next meeting with someone you may not know very well.
- Tell me about your life growing up. Where were you born, about your parents, things you did as a child.
- What is something that not many people know about you?
- What’s on your bucket list?
- Who has been the most influential person in your life? Why is that?
- What are you reading right now, or what do you generally listen to in your car?
- If you could sit down with your 15-year-old self, what would you tell them?
- When you have a free day or splurge day, what food do you eat?
- Where have you never been that you want to go?
Start there and figure it out as you go. Remember, you don’t have to solve all the problems of the world in every conversation. Make your next crucial conversation a civil discussion.