My last post, “How to Talk to Someone You Disagree With,” boiled down to being more interested in listening to the other person than talking about your own position. It was about asking good questions that identify the other person’s core beliefs that drive their position, not so you can change those beliefs, but so you can understand them.
Today, I want to get to the flip-side of the conversation, because I think this is what many people who read the last blog may have been looking for. I do maintain that it’s absolutely critical to start with the other person whenever possible, but sooner or later it will be your turn to say your piece. And when that time comes, it’s going to be useful to know how to say it in a way that can pull people forward instead of accidentally pushing them away. Plus, if you have already talked about the other person’s position and learned about their values, you can shape your words to address those values. Again, this is not necessarily with the intent to change their mind, but to create a channel of honest and direct communication between you and the other person.
Clarifying Your Intentions
Before you set out to say what you believe, check your intentions. I think a lot of us are intent on “setting the record straight,” or “just telling the truth.” Some of us want to straighten the other person out, or win an argument. There are a billion iterations of these intentions, and they all create an “Us v. Them” mentality inside us, which then creates a “fight” energy that can get in the way of clear communication.
My suggestion is that you be really honest with yourself, and ask yourself what your definition of success is. If it’s about changing minds or winning an argument or making someone admit they’re wrong, then this post isn’t going to help you. The world is full of enough conflict, and I have no interest in feeding into that.
But if it’s about increasing the quality of a relationship, or growing mutual understanding, or increasing the quality of your communication with someone, you’ve come to the right place. And if it’s about planting a seed — creating the possibility of your belief taking root in another mind — then you’re on the right track.
Understanding What You Believe
I’ve gotten into countless conversations with people who had clearly thought through their positions far more thoroughly than I did (or at least had given the impression that they had). I hate that feeling of showing up unprepared to a conversation, so now I prep by asking and answering two questions over and over again, until I hit a hard stop. Those two questions are:
- What do you believe is true? (about this particular topic)
- Why do you believe it?
This process helps me come up with useful language for dialogue. It helps me find out what I need to research and learn more about (and in the process, it helps remind me about the difference between facts and opinions). Maybe most importantly, it helps me understand the core architecture of my convictions. Very often I come to realize that my beliefs are under-girded by fear, which I recognize as being not particularly conducive to building a relationship or planting a productive seed.
It’s okay to be afraid of something. But it’s not remotely inspiring if you don’t see a way to change the circumstances that are inspiring the fear. So don’t just believe in the problem, believe in the possibility of a better future. I know entirely too many people who are “too smart” to emotionally invest in a positive future, and therefore cripple their ability to plant a seed.
Once you’re clear on the fear-based problematic now, and the exciting possible future, believe in a potential solution that will take us there, even if you’re not clear on what that solution would be. It’s okay to not know, and it’s smart to admit when you don’t know.
If, however, you do have an idea about the solution, and if it runs counter to the other person’s belief system, you’re going to need to prepare for some resistance.
Defending Without Getting Defensive
Feel good about your beliefs. Be excited about them. Now that you’ve clarified your intentions, you know you’re involved in this conversation not to convince, but to communicate. Now that you understand what you believe, you have words that express those beliefs. And now that you’ve committed to staying positive, you can recognize that your beliefs are constructive, not destructive.
Some folks you talk to might still be looking to get under your skin though. They might try to poke holes in what you have to say. Be open to the possibility of learning something new. But if you feel your core convictions are being threatened, stick with them. Just clarify between the two of you what the difference truly is, and offer to agree to disagree on that.
Stay open, stay positive, stay respectful. Be excited about your beliefs, and say them with confidence and excitement. Not to convince, but to share. Maybe that seed will be planted, maybe it won’t. But the relationship will be stronger, and you’ll feel better for the role you played in making it so.
What do you think? Are you willing to give this a shot? Do you do it already? Share your thoughts below!