Since August of last year, I’ve been traveling the country leading a free workshop I developed called “Difficult Conversations: The art and science of thinking together.” It explores three conditions that, if met, allow us to have productive conversations with anyone, regardless of our differences.
The workshop grew out of a cross-country “conversation road trip” my son and I took following the 2016 election. Our goal was to better understand what people outside our “bubble” were thinking and feeling, and to discover how we might heal our divide.
But as our tour unfolded, we realized our conversations were less about understanding and more about simply connecting. About setting aside our personal agendas and showing genuine curiosity, care and concern. About taking time to build relationship.
As I continued to think about it, this difference between understanding and connection became increasingly meaningful. Connection precedes and enables understanding. It’s what motivates us to stick together and work things out; to inquire rather than escalate; to offer compassion rather than condemnation; to cut people some slack rather than cut them off.
No relationship can survive life’s trials when its connections are weak. And as my son and I travelled the country it became clear our connections as a people had become dangerously distant.
So I decided to create a workshop that would help us reconnect, based on what seemed to make our road-trip conversations so satisfying. It came down to the following three conditions.
The first is to accept that we’re all in this together. The people we don’t like, who we disagree with, or who we regard as our enemy, are not going away. And any attempt to resist, marginalize or vilify them only deepens our divide, which deepens our dysfunction.
Instead, it’s in everyone’s interest to learn how to engage the other as creatively and constructively as possible. To do the hard work of finding common ground; to reduce the divide and dysfunction rather than maximize it. If we’re up for the challenge — and we need to be — it holds the promise of bringing out the best in all of us.
The second condition is to prioritize the relationship over being right. In other words, if we want to build relationships across our divisions, we need to put people before our positions, connection before our convictions.
This may sound counter-productive, foolish, even irrational. It’s certainly not the way most of us think. But it’s both wise and strategic.
Putting the relationship first does not mean abandoning our position or convictions; instead, it’s the means by which we create the best opportunity for our position or conviction to be heard and considered.
Putting the relationship first creates an environment of acceptance — not necessarily of people’s views, but of their humanity. And when people feel accepted, they’re less rigid in their thinking, less attached to their point of view, and more open to new ideas.
So if we really want to have the opportunity to influence people, to change hearts and minds, we need to keep our relationships intact. The question is, how? When a relationship disconnects, how do we reconnect?
This is where the third condition comes in: See beyond our own story. We’re all the product of our experiences. We know from studies in neurobiology, that these experiences get etched into our brain as neural pathways, literally shaping how and what we think, see, and feel. The sum total of these experiences is what I’m calling our “story.”
Reflect on your own experiences for a moment. Think of what has shaped you. Think about your family — its rules, customs and expectations. Think about your culture, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, language!
Think how powerfully these experiences have formed how you see and interact with the world: what you value, what you don’t value; what’s right, what’s wrong; who you associate with, who you don’t.
Now think how different you’d be if you changed almost any one of these experiences, such as your gender, religion, culture, race or ethnicity.
You’d be a different person. You’d think, feel and do differently.
Our diverse stories are the source of humanity’s resilience, creativity and beauty. But when any one person or group over-identifies with their story — when it becomes not “A story” but “THE story, THE truth, THE way” — we get into trouble. We start to judge others through the lens of our story; we categorize them and often dehumanize them, opening the door to intolerance and conflict.
That’s why we need the capacity to hold our story at a distance, to open up our field of view and see beyond it.
In my workshop, I ask people to write or draw their story on a clear sheet of acetate. Then I ask them to hold the acetate directly
in front of their eyes and look through it — a visual demonstration of how our story clouds our vision. Then I have them turn and look to another person who also has a sheet of acetate in front of their eyes. Now everyone’s vision is doubly cloudy. No wonder communication can be so difficult!
Finally, I ask them to hold the acetate away from their face, so they can open up their field of view and see beyond it. When we do that, what happens? We’ve gotten our story enough out of the way to see the other person’s story more clearly.
Now we’ve opened up a different door. We’ve opened the door to connection and compassion.
Let me give you an example.
When my son was young, he was going through a program to earn his back belt. In his class was a person who stood out: A middle-aged man also working toward a black belt
I’d watch him practice and noticed that he took his training seriously. Too seriously, in my opinion. His level of fervor exceeded what seemed normal and I found myself judging him. He needed to relax, I thought, to chill out and gain some perspective. He seemed nice enough, but in terms of ever becoming friends, this behavior was a deal breaker.
Later I found out why he took the program so seriously. He’d begun the training with his young daughter. They were going to achieve their black belt together, a shared experience they would always cherish.
But part way through their training, his daughter was killed in a car accident.
Then I got it. He wasn’t getting a black belt for himself; he was getting it for her. And maybe, in the process, keeping his daughter alive just a little longer…just a little longer to give him more time to work through his grief.
After learning the larger picture of his story, all my judgment vanished. I’d been propelled out of my story and into his — a story of deep pain and suffering I did not need to experience in order to understand.
Behind every action, every belief of “the other” is just such a story. It’s when we get ourselves out of the way that we’re able to uncover that story, and to connect at the level of our common humanity. That’s where we find true common ground. That’s where we find the relationship that can never stay broken for long.
In a powerful and popular TED talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, she shares the process that enabled her to move beyond her story. “The good news” about the process, she said, “is that it’s easy. The bad news is that it’s hard.”
For the three conditions I’ve set out here, I’d put it this way: The bad news is that it’s hard. The good news is that it’s worth it. After all, our future depends on it.