Pro Tips for Healthy Talk

In the months leading up to the presidential election it became commonplace to simply dismiss someone who would cast a vote for the other candidate. Since the inauguration, tensions are at an all-time high for many, driving the dichotomy deeper. For the side that didn’t win back in November, especially those who feel like they will continue to lose so long as this administration is underway, the sensation feels a lot like grief.

Benton Hospice Service Bereavement Coordinator Melissa Allen made the connection to grief through her work as a group facilitator and counselor when clients expressed an added layer of hyper awareness and sensitivity.

“Grief would be any reaction to loss. I think of it as internal thoughts and feelings that you have as a result of experiencing any kind of loss; it doesn’t have to be death. It could be loss of stability, loss of hope, loss of safety, or security, or what I thought I knew about the future,” she said.

So how does someone reconcile that sense of loss? Allen says communication is at the core of it all.

“Talking is a huge way to take what I feel on the inside, express it outwardly, put it words, create my own story,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be talking, it could be journaling, creating art, crying, walking, moving my body in some way, going to a protest. It’s an action.”

After the election, millions marched in protest of the new administration, and continue to do so today. Many are realizing the value of communicating with their representatives. Self-care has become a hot topic and solidarity a buzzword. But it’s easy to stick with your own kind. Citizens preach to their respective echo chambers and engage those who they know are already in agreement.

According to Oregon Humanities Director Adam Davis, it’s impossible to accomplish anything without talking across differences.

Oregon Humanities is a non-profit organization focused on community and justice who host gatherings for Oregonians to discuss important issues and topics through The Conversation Project.

“It does seem like all the work we do in the world requires that we communicate with other people and try to see what the other person’s saying. Especially work that is shared in some way or that affects us as a group, in the community or the workplace,” he said.

We talked to four people who facilitate conversations for a living, three from The Conversation Project and one from Benton Hospice Service, about the importance of engaging the other side. They all had a few common denominators among their advice.

Find common ground.

Before getting to the core of what you disagree with, one strategy is to find something you both have in common. According to Paul Susi, a facilitator with the Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project, this can be about anything – even something like tacos.

“Try to be human, humane. Find something to laugh about first. Take down the stakes and you’ll find that people can be empathetic, and generous, and kind if you give them the opportunity to be,” he said. While this might be easy to achieve in a facilitated conversation where food or ice breakers can break tension, it’s something worth spending time on.

Davis agreed, but included a deeper level of agreement that might be harder to find.

“You could pick almost any issue and the way the conversation is presented is either you’re on one side or the other, but generally there’s actually a big area of agreement to the underlying principle,” he said.

Regardless of how insignificant one similarity may be, Allen said it’s as simple as remembering, “We’re just people.”

Take time to process.

It seems as if an element missing from conversations today is listening. Rather than waiting for your turn to speak, facilitators say to take time to make sure that you’re truly listening to what the other person has to say.

“Ask someone some clarifying questions. Most people will very much be happy. And that could be as much as you do that day, or in that conversation, but it’s wonderful practice about observing and not reacting immediately,” Bob Daley said. Daly is also a facilitator with the Conversation Project and with Benton Hospice Service.

It turns out patience really is key in conversation. Impulsive reactions can have adverse effects in communication just as they do in our day-to-day action.

“You don’t have to be quick to the response. Take a few minutes of just, ‘I’m going try to absorb what you are telling me,’ and there can just be a few minutes of that. It says to the other person that you’re trying to hear it and take it in and then you have a few minutes to kind of just calm yourself before you respond,” Allen advised.

Don’t expect a resolution.

When entering a charged conversation, it can be easy to fall back on the feeling that some sort of resolution needs to come from a conversation. So rather than going in with the intention of changing the other person’s mind, coming out frustrated and convinced the other person is an idiot, attempt to disarm yourself while communicating.

Daly said, “No decision has to be made if you can just slow down and hold both experiences in the same space and be accepting of both.” Validating someone else’s experience of an issue can also go a long way.

“I can accept what somebody is saying. I don’t have to agree with it, but I can say that’s a valid perspective,” he continued.

Susi added that it is sometimes best to be up front with the fact that agreement is far from reach.

“People you do want to stay in community with, my advice and my approach is to openly acknowledge that we’re not going to come to agreement. We’re not going to come to unanimity… The first step is getting us to acknowledge both that there is more than one perspective on a given issue,” he said.

And those kinds of resolutions are not easily tackled all at once. Whatever the discussion may be, “Enter into it acknowledging that this may just be the start of this. Take it in chunks,” Allen advised.

Stay away from social media.

As tempting as it may be to comment on a friend’s political post on Facebook, it’s often best to stay away from those kinds of public debates. Take time to consider what the outcome of the argument will be, and what amount of good it does.

“In some way the non-face-to-face conversation that happens on Facebook and other social media is at best a distraction but at worst kind of destructive to how we communicate in person because it has the potential to lower trust,” Daly said. According to him, social media makes it too easy for people to avoid truly listening, that it’s easy to drop your opinion and walk away.

Allen agreed, and thinks that social media doesn’t facilitate substantial conversations. “My sense is that there’s cross-talk that occurs on media, but it’s not really talk, it’s something different. There are no consequences of sitting directly across from somebody, so you can be way less measured in your control.”The real time consequences of face to face interactions are lost.

So the next time you find yourself engaging with someone outside of your bubble, try to keep this advice in mind. Davis stressed that talking to people is necessary, regardless of who’s on what side, adding that, “If you get people more comfortable talking with each other they’re going to be better working in the world together. It’s basically about participatory democracy and the idea that action also requires reflection, and reflection almost necessarily comes back to action, and dialogue is a way for those two things to keep working together.”

~By Regina Pieracci