As Seeds of Peace facilitators, Greg Barker and Eliza O’Neil are well-versed in the art of navigating conflict. In this installment of #DialogueIRL, we take a question from a student who has gone home for the summer and is worried about confrontations with her family and peers.
Q: “I’m pretty liberal, but I come from a very conservative town. Whether it’s running into people at Walmart that I went to school with or getting together with my family, I feel like I’m constantly having to talk about and defend my views when I go home for college break. How can I have more meaningful conversations with people, when I feel like my back is against the wall to begin with?”
Eliza: This is tough stuff! And you’re not alone; a lot of people deal with this whenever they go back to their hometown.
A great place to start when you’re having these difficult conversations is to check in with your purpose. What’s your intention with this conversation? Is it to convince the other person that you’re right? To make them feel bad? To understand them better? To learn something new? To stir up drama? (No judgment!)
All of these questions can help you understand the reason why you’re engaging with family on these hard topics. And once you’ve done that, make that “why” known to them—it’s a really powerful way to start a conversation. Here are some examples of what you can say:
“I want to engage with you because I really care about our relationship and sometimes I don’t feel heard in it.”
“I really want to engage with you because I want to learn something new and we don’t see eye to eye on everything, so that’s a great opportunity to learn something new.”
“I want to have this conversation because I’m committed to our relationship.”
Naming this purpose to the person you’re talking to is a vulnerable and approachable way to start the conversation.
After that, my advice is to try to find the good in what the other person is saying. People are experts at finding the bad in what other people say. Think of all the times someone has said something and you thought, “You are so ignorant.”
Instead, try to find the commitment or the hope in what they’re saying. For example, Greg, what’s something that you’ve complained about today?
Greg: Thanks for asking! I complained about the work day starting at 9 in the morning.
Eliza: Okay, so it sounds like sleep is really important to you.
Greg: It is.
Eliza: It sounds like being your best on the job is really important to you, so you feel like you can bring your full, well-rested self to your work. Is that right?
Greg: Absolutely, yeah!
Eliza: It may sound a little mechanical, but everyone sees the world through their own lenses and contexts. So training yourself to think about where someone else is coming from, and what the hope or the commitment is in what they are saying, can help you approach a conversation with more empathy.
Greg: That is so key. When we try to navigate conflict well, often what everything boils down to is reminding yourself and the person you’re talking to that both of you are full human beings, and not reducible to the last thing that either of you said.
Another trick you can use to empathize with someone who has said something you don’t agree with or something that was hurtful to you is to assume positive intentions—even if you don’t actually believe that the intention was positive. You don’t have to think that someone’s intentions are positive in order to decide to act as though they were. And that mindset can help you think about what else might be behind someone’s hurtful words. For example, maybe they feel like their back is against the wall in the conversation, too, and they don’t know how to react to that. Maybe they’re just panicking, rather than actively trying to offend you or put you on the spot.
And again, don’t forget that everyone in the world has some piece of information that you don’t have. Whether it’s from the body they inhabit, their identities, or their experiences, everyone knows something about what it means to be in the world that is different from your own understanding. When your back is against the wall in these difficult conversations, try to approach them with an attitude of wanting to learn what that different worldview is.
Have a question for our facilitators? Send it to dialogueIRL@seedsofpeace.org.