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Tips for contentious conversation

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| October 13, 2022 1:00 AM

It’s obvious by now that America’s divided narrative is bad for its soul.

Depression is common, progress stalled (or reversed) and news avoided. Fact is ignored or dismissed as fiction when it doesn’t comport with our own viewpoints.

Blame it on the “me” focus of social media, with its platforms for finger-wagging unfettered by the reality of facing one another. Blame it on the rise of biased “news” — or biased news-hunting — making it too easy to cling to echoes of our own preconceptions.

Whatever the reason, we feel more segregated by opinion. An incongruously un-united United States.

Funny thing is, beyond the basic humanity we forget we share, there is common ground even on contentious issues. And there is a way to talk about what we don’t see the same way.

Surveys from an ongoing nonpartisan project called “Hidden Common Ground” found in 2020 that while Americans may disagree loudly on the political pathways to reach them, many of our underlying goals are surprisingly the same. And nearly all of us — more than 9 in 10 Americans — agree it’s critical to address the divide.

But we have to talk about it.

Tuesday’s column explored research showing the brainwaves of people who disagree actually align more after discussing it. Even when expressed conclusions didn’t change, perspectives did. Listening to one another affects how we think, leading to greater understanding of people and contentious issues.

There’s listening, and there’s listening.

When I listen, am I “listening” just to bide my time, eager for my turn to talk?

When I listen, am I looking for opportunities to interject my own thoughts?

When I listen, am I hearing only what I want to hear, projecting my own perspective, viewpoint or opinion?

Listening is not a passive activity. It’s not enough for the ears to merely hear. To absorb what’s communicated requires observation, empathy and an open mind consciously freed from its subconscious filters.

An acknowledgment in every conversation that I might not know everything, and certainly not everything about another’s perspective.

That’s active listening: Listening to understand. Sage advice for every relationship — personal, professional, political. It starts with remembering the humanity we all share, no matter how “inconceivable” it may seem that our strongly held, even similar beliefs result in different political conclusions. And remembering that different lives, perspectives, and these days, sources of information lead to different conclusions.

I think of a favorite cousin with whom I vehemently disagree on several important issues yet love as deeply as life itself, a bond developed in childhood we fiercely hold onto. Americans used to be more that way with one another. We had a bond. We hurt, feeling it broken. To fix it, we need to talk like cousins.

In a contentious conversation the trick is to think like partners in it, not adversaries.

Psychologists and communication researchers say active listening doesn’t simply benefit the speaker; it also increases the listener’s well-being.

Start with remembering that all humans have an instinctual need to feel connected, valued and worthy of that value. At the simplest level, positive interactions with others increase those feelings. Start with intending to do that. Yes, even if it’s not mutual. Sometimes that gift by itself plants a seed that opens a mind later.

An active listening skillset means:

Instead of planning a response the entire time (a very common habit), actually processing what’s being said.

Absorbing words in the same framework and from the perspective of the speaker, rather than with our own agenda for the conversation. Stepping in their shoes while listening, feeling the speaker’s concerns, fears, goals, values as they perceive them.

No name-calling (even in our heads), dismissiveness or labels. We can keep our own values while trying to understand another’s. We might even find what lies beneath aligns with “the other side” (more on that in a later column).

Being nonverbal during the speaker’s story, instead of looking for opportunities to project “me too” or “when I.”

Asking questions, then paraphrasing what’s been said is a very powerful listening tool. It assures the speaker they’ve been heard, and helps obviate feelings of frustration and diffuse anger.

Here’s a biggie for all of us these days, no matter what side you fall on: Not judging what’s being said, either vocally or in our internal monologue. Listening and opining are mutually exclusive.

Finally, it helps to let silence just be, resisting the urge to fill quiet moments. Silence can enrich understanding and processing, deepening human bonds. It also sends a message that you are thinking about what you heard.

If responding, choose words which are first acknowledging, non-judgmental, and respectful. If you must say how you feel differently, express that not as a judged universal truth but as a more personal one in exchange, such as “I understand. I feel/worry/am also concerned about …”

Active listening is the first step on the bridge to a more united and strong society. Wanting that at least is something we can all agree on, but let’s be realistic. “United” will never mean full agreement. Such a utopian ideal is incompatible with humanity and deliberative, democratic government such as ours. Those individual natures, those differences in thought, were by design meant to aid reasoned, creative and flexible approaches to address the needs of our evolving society.

We make better solutions and greater progress when we consider more viewpoints and why people have them. That’s why disagreement is an asset, if we can relearn how to use it.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.

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