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Humane Strategies for Challenging Conversations

By Kristina Hulvershorn

If our definition of “humane” means that we are aspiring to reflect the best traits of human beings, how in the world do we handle a conversation with Uncle Jerry on Thanksgiving when he brings out our worst?  There are no easy answers, but in my work with restorative justice and conflict resolution, I am always learning and realizing better ways to tackle tough conversations. Here are a few tried-and-true strategies.  

Explicitly state your intent not to judge.  Imagine you are a person who is feeling judged because, for example, a humane educator is asking you to think about trash in the oceans.  You may feel uncomfortable because you think you are about to be shamed for using a straw or for eating fish. That defensiveness can lead to shutting down or any number of other communication-stoppers.  Many of us have learned that by saying something along the lines of, “I’m certainly not perfect, so I’m not here to judge…” or “I’m still learning about this too, and work really hard not to criticize what anyone else is doing…” puts the other person in a better mental state to listen.  If you sense defensiveness, you can help to defuse it by simply stating that it is not your intent to levy shame or judgement. Often, you can quickly see the tension and defensiveness fade, and the conversation grows richer. 

Listen with your full presence.  We know that listening is essential to the magic of communication.  So, it only makes sense that it is also our job to demonstrate what we want others to bring to the conversation.  We have all heard the advice, “Listen to understand, not to argue.” This is a vital and effective strategy that is extraordinarily underused.  Even if people are being argumentative (or worse), truly listening to them will: 1) help you build empathy, 2) allow you to talk on the same level rather than “at” one another, and 3) generate more effective communication in which both parties may take something new away from the conversation.  

Be ready to be wrong.  I know this sounds strange, but in almost every conflict that I face day in and day out as part of my conflict resolution work, I remind myself, “Be ready to be wrong.”  No one taught me this, but I realized that simply being open to not knowing the full story and not understanding someone’s perspective fully has put me in such a better place to help others navigate conflicts and to help me through my own.  

It is easy to assume we’ve got it all figured out, but really, who does?  Over the course of my experience living and working in accordance with anti-racist principles, I still encounter ways in which my cultural conditioning may at times influence my assumptions or behavior, despite my best intentions, as happened just this week.  When someone pointed it out, I immediately felt defensive and angry. It was only when I reminded myself, “Be ready to be wrong,” that I gained a willingness to listen and understand the other person’s point of view. Being open to listening when others notice my mistakes is also a critical part of the work I do.  Fully understanding multiple points of view takes us to a place where we can find effective solutions to the problems we face. So, it’s exciting to uncover your own misconceptions because that puts you one step closer to a more holistic approach to a problem. Often, this means intentionally setting aside our ego and self-interest, but the new understandings that await us are more than worth it.  

Extend your empathy to those you don’t agree withHumane educators, in my experience, are incredibly empathetic. This gets complicated when we realize that the common denominator in so many of the pressing issues facing our planet and everyone living here tends to be related to human beings and our often-harmful actions.  While we are the problem, we also can be the solution. From my perspective, handling each other with care and empathy seems to deliver us the best odds of changing some of those behaviors. Even when others are doing something harmful, our best odds of reaching some understanding is by unlocking communication with empathy.  Imagine a conversation with a neighbor about their use of pesticides. If your goal is to encourage them to pursue an alternative, consider a couple ways you could handle it. One is:

 “You need to stop putting that poison on your property.  It is literally killing pollinators. I know you don’t care about them, but I do, and what you are doing is also affecting the plants and creatures on my property as well.”

Think for a moment how that will land.  All of those statements may be true. Saying them aloud may also feel good, but do they deliver any new understanding or action?  Any new information is likely to be eclipsed by the frustration and defensiveness any of us would feel by being blamed in such a direct way.  

Here is another approach:

“Your flowers look so nice!  You’re always out here working on this garden.  So many bugs this year, though, right? It seems like more and more every year.  I actually read an interesting article that had a list of things you can do to keep your plants from getting eaten that helped a lot over here.  I like the solutions they suggested because they were cheap and safe for kids and animals. Want me to send you the article?”

Neither conversation offers us any guarantee of a behavior change, but the second one certainly opens up the doors for communication.  The second statement is also coming from a place of empathy. The speaker understands that the flowers and plants are important to the neighbor.  The insects are likely an impediment to something they really care about. Offering concern or empathy about something you know is important to that person is a very useful starting point. 

Be intentional about how you are communicating emotions.  There is nothing wrong with emotions, whether feeling or expressing them—which are essential for psychological health—but when you are finally sitting down with a relative, student, or coworker to tackle a challenging topic, you are more likely to be effective if you are able to use compelling information delivered in a calm way rather than simply leveraging your emotion.  This can be tough, because many of us feel such a deep connection to the topics we find ourselves discussing—particularly if harm has been done to us, our community, or any other entity we care for. But in a conversation, if your goal is to encourage the other to listen to your point of view, consider the way that your tone and delivery can either sustain communication or escalate conflict.  

Here’s to a season of courageous, compassionate, and effective communication! Animals, our planet, and our fellow humans need us to be willing to keep trying and keep working!

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