With our world growing more polarized day by day, it is more important than ever to have healthy conversations with those we agree with and not avoid those that we disagree with. We need to polish our skills of having productive and meaningful conversations with other human beings, even if we don’t agree with them. This applies to conversations with friends, acquaintances, relatives, as well as coworkers and clients. Avoiding someone because you know that the conversation of politics, religion, or some other touchy subject may come up is stressful and unhealthy. What I am not suggesting here is that you go full steam ahead and pontificate your beliefs and opinions without respect for others. The lecture approach will not get you far in a conversational atmosphere.
After 40 years of being a trainer, public speaker, and in positions where proper communication is the key to success, I have improved my conversation, speaking, and listening skills through learning from my mistakes and observing others. Here are a few observations and suggestions that may help you with your communication skill set as well.
When I observe groups in conversation, whether it’s a group that is all in agreement or an adversarial group, I see their stress levels and blood pressure rising. The group that is all in agreement on a subject matter, they are passionate and can work themselves into a frenzy agreeing with each other. On the other hand, group conversations where there are obvious divides and disagreeing sides can escalate quickly and get stressful as well. According to the 2017 Stress in America Survey, “27 percent of adults strongly or somewhat agree that the political climate has caused strain between themselves and their family members. It’s important to have healthy conversations, but also to be mindful of when the discussion escalates and becomes unproductive.” It’s very healthy to have beliefs and opinions based on those beliefs, even to the point of being passionate about them, yet it’s also OK to disagree with someone, but listen to them and engage in civil conversation.
When having conversations that may become adversarial, find areas where you agree. You may disagree with someone, but instead of strongly reacting, actively listen to the other person about what is important to them. For example, you might have different ideas about gun control, but underneath you share the same concern for keeping your kids safe and healthy. You may find that by discussing shared viewpoints, areas of disagreement will feel less intense, and your stress may decrease.
Some suggestions that may seem obvious, yet sometimes are difficult to put into practice:
- Don’t multitask during your conversations with your phone and other distractions. You can’t fully engage and listen if you are partially present. Show respect for the person or group that you are speaking with by giving them your full attention, both physical and mentally, to the conversation at hand.
- Use open-ended questions to get more engagement from those in the conversation. Starting questions with who, what, when, where, or how will help you gain more insight into what others are thinking and truly believe.
- Avoid the need to save your ego by supporting your position with made-up data or hearsay. It’s OK to say you don’t know if you don’t know and don’t try to one-up everyone. Listen and let people share their experiences without one-upping them at every turn.
- Try not to keep repeating the same information or experience throughout the conversation. Say it once and let it ride as is. Otherwise, it sounds like your pontificating on the subject and not listening to the dialogue.
- And maybe the toughest to learn and practice is listening, because talking and thinking of your next comment is easier than listening. Remind yourself that you are in these conversations to learn and not to preach. It is not your job to covert everyone to your way of thinking. Have passion, beliefs, and opinions and add listening to these characteristics.
I love it when people speak with passion and conviction. At the same time, one needs to stay calm during these conversations and not assume bad intent on the part of others. This takes practice and patience, but it is very powerful. Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do. We may forget they’re human as well, with a lifetime of experience that shaped their minds. Getting stuck on any first wave of anger will set the stage for never having the opportunity to move forward with a productive conversation. When we stay calm and assume good or neutral intent, we give our minds a much stronger framework for dialogue.
Finally, what I’m not eluding to is just to be passive and never have an opinion or belief that may ruffle a few feathers. One side effect of having strong beliefs is that we may assume that our position is, or should be, obvious and self-evident to others and that we shouldn’t have to defend our belief and opinion. If someone doesn’t get it, that’s their problem. If it were that simple, we would all see things the same way, wouldn’t we? This attitude can be unhealthy as well during a conversation because it may shut you down and make you appear uncaring and uninvolved.
Go ahead, make the argument with the above suggestions in mind. Find areas where you agree, be open and kind, accept the fact that you may not change the other person’s mind, and know the appropriate time to end a conversation peacefully when it becomes heated without resolution.
You may not always agree, but you should always be listening!
Steve Mores is the VP of Training and Sales at Dynamic Air Quality Solutions.
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