Few people want to have a conversation anymore. They want to rant about their own opinion, but don’t really want to hear from those who disagree. This is especially true in politics and in the church. Now, to be fair, people don’t negotiate their closely held values. Politics and religion are values-driven. But there’s a difference between being firm in your beliefs and refusing to hear those with whom you disagree.
I was at Annual Conference a few weeks ago. This is our yearly gathering of clergy and laity in our region. I happened to run into a few of my colleagues who were staffing a display booth for an association that I was pretty sure was advocating a position on an issue that was opposite mine.
I’m not going to share the issue because that is not relevant. In the family systems approach to leadership, one mantra is, “It’s process, not content.” Understanding the emotional process is the key issue. The approach is called leadership through self-differentiation, which is being able to define and articulate your own goals and values, amidst surrounding togetherness pressures, AND stay in touch emotionally. The process part of this is the ability to say what you believe, in a non-anxious way, without cutting off emotionally from the other. This is true regardless of the issue. It’s the process that matters, not the content.
The key to having a hard conversation is to be able to share what you believe while giving the other the freedom to disagree.
If people don’t negotiate their closely held values, then why would you try to convince them to change their minds?
The best way to have a hard conversation is to be straightforward. You can say, “This is what I believe, but you don’t have you to agree with me.” The fact that you will continue to respect who they are as a person, even if they don’t agree with you, is implicit in this statement. If you want, you can say it explicitly. “This is what I believe. I respect that you may not agree.”
If you are dealing with an emotionally mature person, this may be the start of a real conversation. If not, things can get anxious. When you self-differentiate, that is, say what you believe while staying in touch, a more mature person will do the same. She might say, “I see how you might think that, but I disagree. What I believe is…” You can work with that.
I had a conversation with one of the colleagues mentioned above. I consider this person to be a friend, as well as a partner in ministry. We’ve known each other a long time and we both know each other’s positions. So in this case, we didn’t start there. There was no reason for either of us to state our positions or to try to convince the other to change their opinion. But we did have a conversation. More on this later.
When you state your position, the less mature will respond by trying to define you, not themselves. “How can you say that? You are going to lead people astray with that kind of thinking. You are way off base.” These are the folks who rant on social media about how everyone who disagrees with them is ruining the world.
When you get this kind of response, it’s best to politely cut things off. If you can do it in a light-hearted way, that’s even better. “Hey, I can see we don’t agree on this, but that’s OK. I still love ya.”
But, let’s assume that you’ve gotten off to a good start. You’ve stated your position in a non-anxious, non-threatening way, and so has the other.
The best thing you can do in a hard conversation is to ask questions.
If there is common ground to be found, then the only way to get there is to stop battling and start listening. Remember, this is not about trying to convince the other person to agree with you. It’s about learning from the other. Asking questions is how you learn.
It also helps you to maintain a non-anxious presence.
Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, says, “Asking questions is a great way to remain both non-anxious and present (p. 72).”
Here’s how I started the conversation with my colleague. I tried to keep it light, so I said, “Tell me about your association. All I have heard is rumor and innuendo.”
And we talked. We listened. We actually found some common ground. I came away from this conversation thanking God.
Real conversations about difficult issues are rare these days.
Our country is polarized. It’s easier to hang with like-minded people and criticize the other. It’s scary to think of having a conversation with someone who disagrees because it can get messy. But we’re never going to get anywhere in our country or in the church if we aren’t willing to try.
Questions for Reflection:
Who do you know that disagrees with you on an important issue?
How can you have a conversation with them?
What is stopping you?