Q: How can I navigate challenging conversations with people with whom I disagree? So often it seems that the disagreements result in division. I would like to have constructive conversations that will grow more connectedness. Any advice?

Thank you so much for your question. So many of us are trying to figure out how to have constructive dialogue with family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers in a time where it seems that polarization is only increasing! Here are some ideas to consider.

When faced with potential conflict, depending on our personality, typically our responses are either fight, flight, or freeze. Yet, in our experience we have found that there is another more productive option, to find a path into a genuine conversation. Here are a few markers for that path.

First of all, it is helpful to acknowledge our discomfort and then make a deliberate choice to step out of our comfort zone for the purpose of engaging in dialogue. So often the process gets shut down before we ever get started! Frequently that is because what we, or the other person wants is a monologue, not a dialogue! There are some internal postures which can help us to move towards dialogue; humility, I may not have all the right answers, curiosity, I may not have all of the information, and courage, I am willing to be challenged and uncomfortable for the sake of building relationships. Each of those postures will bring us into a position where we will be more prepared for those difficult conversations.

Once we have made those internal adjustments we can then step into a dialogue with the intention to listen and learn. It is always beneficial to seek to understand, even before being understood. This is certainly contrary to our normal human instincts yet we have found that it does yield positive results in those challenging conversations. Instead of reacting to something someone says that we disagree with we can respond with questions like, “Could you tell me more about how you came to that perspective?” “Can you tell me more about what you are thinking, or feeling, or experiencing?” ” How does this affect you personally, your family, your work?” Questions naturally create more dialogue!

As you are in dialogue reflect back what is being said, be open, be respectful, and be honest about your own thoughts, feelings, and responses. Remember that genuinely listening and learning will not necessarily bring you into a place of agreement, however it can bring you to a place where each of you will feel affirmed as a fellow human being and trust  in your relationship can be strengthened. The process itself will be the primary end product and may lead to unexpected positive places in the future.

Finally, recognize that you only have control over your own reactions and responses, not anyone else’s. We often become anxious or angry when someone doesn’t participate in a dialogue in the way we would like them to, however that is not our responsibility. As Paul says in Romans 12: 18 ” If It is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Towards that end we can continue to lean in to listen and learn and with God’s help build bridges rather than walls.

Thank you for reaching out,
The Practicing Reconciliation Team