There has been no shortage of examples of demonizing and dehumanizing speech in our public discourse in the last month. I notice that I have been strangely silent on the topic; I just felt no energy to immerse myself in more hateful speech (which is what one has to do if one is going to adequately analyze that speech). Now, an article that I spotted in the news this week has highlighted for me that I have actually been looking for some good examples to share – examples of how people can come together across differences on the basis of their common humanity.
CNN published a piece entitled Mikulski Makes History While Creating a ‘Zone of Civility’ for Senate Women. In it, Senator Mikulski and her female colleagues in both parties describe their tradition of monthly dinners, in which they “…get to know each other personally, so they can work better together professionally.” The Senators share a meal, and talk about their families and the personal concerns in their lives. As Senator Gillibrand put it, “Sometimes we talk about what we are working on but it’s a very collegial setting where we are trying to cultivate friendship first and foremost.”
Mikulski describes the dinners as a refuge with “no agenda, nothing to prove [except] finding common ground where we’re going to talk about what we’re going to work on in other committees or circumstances.” She said, “I think it’s a place that gives us energy, gives us a sense of our own community and we all really do know we can count on each other if something comes up we would be the first there.” The secret to this zone of civility amidst genuine ideological and political differences is simple conversation. If you read the article, you will notice the word conversation appears numerous times.
Conversation is an often-overlooked strategy for conflict management. The essence of conversation is the joint exploration of each participant’s reality. Conversation affords us the opportunity to better understand the other and be better understood ourselves. Because conversation is a process of “shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together” (Isaacs, 1999, p. 9), it requires the participants to be committed to understanding the other and open to revising their own conclusions.
Conversation is a skill and an art. It is more than just talking together, which sometimes devolves into just talking at each other. Specific suggestions for how to practice the art of conversation as a conflict management strategy can be drawn from Isaacs (1999), and Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler (2002):
- Create a safe environment (Notice the many ways that a safe is environment is constructed in the example: a meal, in a home, outside of regular work hours, an agenda of building connections, the regularity of the event, and so on.)
- Listen: without resistance and with an attitude of genuine curiosity (Notice that in the article, Senator Murkowski says, “I think it is how we communicate the message and how we listen to what is being communicated. And I think that the listening part of it is an important part of how we get the results.”)
- Share your point of view: facts, stories, and feelings
- Speak to discover your voice
- Speak to create, not destroy
- Invite others to share their points of view: facts, stories, and feelings
- Talk tentatively: keep open the possibility that you could be mistaken
- Test realities: invite opposing views and play devil’s advocate
- Agree when you can agree
- Take a “yes, and…” position. If someone leaves out important information, for example, you can state, “Yes, XYZ is true. And I also want to mention ABC…”
- When there are significant differences in views, compare and examine the differences.
In common usage, we think of conversation as casual or informal talk between friends or acquaintances. As the example of the Senate women illustrates, conversation is also a powerful communication strategy for connecting with others across differences on the basis of their shared humanity. Through conversation, people can construct new realities together. They can prevent conflict spirals from forming or escalating, and they can transform an existing spiral of conflict interactions from a negative and destructive cycle to a positive and constructive cycle.