Tag Archives: conversation

We Can Do Better (Talking to Each Other)

The more I watch and engage in public discourse, the more I believe that one of the most important things we can do for our children and our society is to learn and practice new ways of communicating with each other.

Right now, we’re learning to engage with each other in ways that are damaging and thoughtless and building habits that perpetuate harm and disconnection. Trading memes and sound bites, labeling each other based on assumptions, and not acknowledging the emotions that are being generated as a result only serve to polarize us more and make it harder to find common ground.

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a phrase most often associated with Marshall Rosenberg and a specific method of interaction, and I find the basic principles incredibly useful and sensible. Unfortunately, when I try to put it in to practice, I often find it to be rote and robotic, and often, if only one person is embracing the practice, it feels awkward.

Because of this, I’ve thought a lot about how to build the ideas in to a way of conversing that feel more natural to me. [I am absolutely not disparaging the work of Rosenberg. I see this more as building on it and working to make it accessible to other folks who may feel the same about the role-playing as I do. I am tremendously grateful for the work he and others have done in this area.] To that end, I’ve put together a list of things I think are necessary for more compassionate, purposeful communication.

  • GENUINE CURIOSITY – Going in to a conversation or dialogue where you’re convinced you “know” and it’s your intent to teach the other person or get them to adopt your perspective is not conducive to an honest, respectful exchange.
  • TIME – This kind of interchange takes effort. It requires pauses to digest what the other person is saying, an attempt to ‘read’ their body language and tone, and it’s important to make sure you’ve really understood what they’re trying to say to you. This doesn’t come quickly. And it’s challenging. We often want conversations to be quick and simple – especially when they are about difficult subjects. 
  • WILLINGNESS TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE – Learning requires growth, and NVC is about learning. It is also often about giving up the idea that there is a Right and a Wrong conclusion, or that there is any clear conclusion at all. That is scary. Our brains are wired to look for certainty, and we’ve been taught that the ideal outcome of any interaction is a winner and a loser. In order to communicate this way, we have to give up those ideas and sink in to uncertainty and really listen for what resonates as we navigate the conversations. And we have to be open to the possibility that more profound understanding is the outcome, as opposed to a concrete resolution. 
  • EMPATHY – Being willing to entertain the notion that someone else’s perspective is both very different from yours and also totally valid is key. Empathy is about acknowledging everyone’s right to feel the way they feel, honoring their lived experience even when we can’t understand it, and not judging them for the conclusions they’ve come to based on those experiences. It is also about a feeling of compassion for someone who is struggling and resisting the urge to minimize it, justify it, or fix it. 
  • DESIRE TO CONNECT, LEARN, UNDERSTAND – This kind of conversation leads to deeper, more authentic connections between people. Anytime someone feels that their world view is heard, validated, and respected, they learn to trust a little bit more. When we can enter in to a dialogue by setting aside the need to be Right or exercise our power, and set the intention to learn, we are creating a setting where we can connect on a deeper level. 
  • PRACTICE – Most of us have grown up watching people battle it out for supremacy in debates – whether by coercion or negotiation or outright fighting. We have been conditioned to think that any conversation that doesn’t require a definitive conclusion is “small talk” or “fluffy.” It takes a lot of time and patience to undo those lessons. 
  • EVERYONE ON EQUAL FOOTING, FEELING HEARD AND RESPECTED AND LEARNING – When we begin by “othering” the person we’re talking to (thinking we know what they believe, labeling them, mentally listing all the ways they are different than us or the things they ‘don’t know’), we’ve already made the interaction ten times harder. Starting with the assumption that the person we’re engaging with deserves equal time and opportunity to talk, and that they know things that might be valuable for us, allows us to be more receptive to what they’re saying. Eye rolls, sarcasm, mocking, and labeling change the dynamic so that not everyone feels respected and heard. 

The added bonus of this kind of conversation is that it doesn’t trigger our fight/flight response because we’re not automatically on guard. When we’re focused on learning and leading with curiosity and empathy, we are less likely to be emotional, which means that our pre-frontal cortex is working more effectively. We are able to think critically and learn better. But that’s only when all the participants are willing to show up with empathy and curiosity and a willingness to be uncomfortable. Even one person who doesn’t use the above tools can trigger emotional responses that derail the conversation and lead us back to those old habits. 

Tips for Parents and Educators: “The Complex Yes”

Practicing the Complex Yes

When you disagree with a friend,

a stranger, or a foe, how do you

reply but not say simply No?

For No can stop the conversation

or turn it into argument or worse –

the conversation that must go on, as a river

must, a friendship, a troubled nation.

So may we practice the repertoire

of complex yes:

Yes, and in what you say I see…

Yes, and at the same time…

Yes, and what if…?

Yes, I hear you, and how…?

Yes, and there’s an old story…

Yes, and as the old song goes…

Yes, and as a child told me once…

Yes. Yes, tell me more. I want to understand…

      and then I want to tell you how it is for me….

Kim Stafford

As parents and educators, when we are trying to create and maintain strong, trusting relationships with adolescents, there are times when we need to distance ourselves from our role as “teacher” or “mentor” and become simply listeners. This is where the “complex Yes” comes in, and I believe that it is the second to last line of this poem that is the most effective approach.

Yes. Yes, tell me more. I want to understand…

This approach signals to the student or child that we are not interested in convincing them of anything, diminishing the importance of their ideas or thoughts or feelings, or proving them wrong. It is a message that we are curious, that we are on equal footing, or maybe even that roles have reversed for a bit and they are invited to become our teachers, to introduce us to something we may not have considered before, to a new perspective. This is an incredibly powerful and simple way to build confidence in teens and let them practice with their own unique voice and it opens the door to a richer relationship. It isn’t easy to break ourselves of the habit to correct or guide or offer our opinion, but with practice, I think you’ll see the value of it – both for your connection with the other person and in their own growth and development.

Rules of Engagement for Families (and Teachers)

As my kids got older, I began to realize that it was going to be necessary to change the way we addressed certain issues in our home. While I still encouraged lots of discussion and offered to be present and support my teens as they worked out their own differences, it became clear to me that their unique personalities meant that they approached this in very different ways. This tended to make conversations turn in to conflict, if only because one of my daughters is someone who wants to hash things out instantly, in the moment, and stay until it’s done, while the other one prefers to walk away when emotions get high, re-center herself, and decide if it’s a fight worth having. After a few ugly scenes (complete with doors slamming and tears), we sat down to create a set of ground rules that would work for everyone, and I think they’re pretty universal, so I’ve adopted them as rules for any classroom or student gathering I’m in that has a conflict of some sort. Here they are:

  1. Everyone at the table is here because they want to be (not because they are forced to be or guilted into it). Force and guilt/shame set up a power dynamic that means the discussion is doomed to fail before it even starts.
  2. Everyone has the same rights – we are all equals and we all deserve to be heard and our perspectives respected. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or what their status in the family/classroom is. There are no trump cards if we are truly interested in working through this to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone thinks that they’re bound to be over-ruled at some point, there’s no point in engaging. And if anyone else believes that they ultimately get to decide what happens, there’s no point in them listening to the others.
  3. Even if we can’t understand someone else’s point of view or feelings, we respect their right to have it and we all agree not to belittle anyone because of it. No gaslighting. Your reaction might seem disproportionate or even absurd to me, but since I’m not living in your skin, I don’t get to tell you how you should feel and I certainly don’t get to shame you for feeling the way you feel.
  4. No name-calling, ultimatums, demands, hate speech. This one might seem patently obvious, but often when we get in to a situation that seems to be going nowhere, we resort to these tactics to ratchet up the urgency. They’re not helpful at all if what we really want is to solve the problem at hand.
  5. We all agree to work our hardest to define a common goal for this situation and work toward it. Bringing up past resentments is not okay because it derails the conversation. There may well be patterns of behavior you have noticed over time, but if you want to have a conversation about this incident or issue right now, you need to stay in this moment. No fair blaming or shaming someone for something they did in the past. Period.
  6. No eye-rolling or turning away or other negative body language. This sends the clear message that you’re not listening or you’re not interested in really understanding where the other person is coming from. If you’re not, there’s no reason for you to be here.
  7. If someone decides they can’t be part of the conversation right now for any reason, they are allowed to leave, but they agree to be part of the conversation in the near future so that bad feelings won’t fester and things won’t remain unsolved. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Everyone agrees to own their part of the issue and take responsibility for their words or actions that might have caused others pain or frustration. There are multiple sides to every conflict. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong.
  9. Blaming and shaming, labeling someone, and using words like “always” and “never” will not move us forward and should be avoided. These are all shortcuts to ending a conversation and an indication that you’re making assumptions about the other person’s character or intent. You won’t get anywhere if you use these tactics.