We need to talk

Several times in recent weeks I’ve discussed with clients their issues where they have a fundamental difference of opinion with another party, whether a colleague, a supplier or a client.  It has struck me how much effort they invest in trying to change the situation, whilst resisting the somewhat obvious option of just discussing it with the other party.  Nationally, we have a major political issue that polarises opinion and is crying out for the powerful people to just sit down and talk it through to find a solution.

It can be too easy to take a dogmatic position (at work and on the issue of EU membership…) without opening up to consider the alternative point of view.  Sometimes it is hard to consider that alternative view because of the way it is advanced – if the other party is equally dogmatic, or aggressive, neither party will be open to explore alternative views.

With this polarisation of opinion and the sometimes-vitriolic presentation of views, I was reminded of the Westboro Baptists of Kansas.  Louis Theroux has done two excellent documentaries on the church, who have a somewhat fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian faith.  Remembering their story lead me to the fascinating example of Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the church in 2012 and now advocates empathy in dialogue.

In her excellent TED talk, which should be required viewing for anyone commenting on Brexit on social media, she sets out four simple rules for effective communication when there is a divergence of opinion:

  1. Assume good or neutral intent (she says don’t assume bad intent, but I prefer something without a double negative…)
  2. Ask questions (which reminds me of Stephen Covey’s “Seek first to understand”)
  3. Stay calm (in her language, “rightness doesn’t justify rudeness”…)
  4. Make the argument (our position may not be obvious and self-evident)

So, we could all challenge ourselves to talk more – rather than making assumptions about the other person, avoiding confrontation and/or prolonging issues that niggle.  If we step up and have those conversations, Megan Phelps-Roper gives some good ground rules for how to have them.

Where do you have a niggle in a relationship?  Where are you avoiding a conversation?

How could you initiate a proper, open dialogue with the other party?

What if you were to assume that they had good intent?

What questions could you ask to help you understand their position (not to convince them of yours)?

How will you stay calm and positive during the interaction?

Once you have understood their position, what is the core argument you want to convey to them?

Megan finishes with a very powerful message, coming from someone who previously peddled hate by picketing funerals: “The end of this spiral of rage and blame begins with one person… We just have to decide that it’s going to start with us.”

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