“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This famous quote by Benjamin Franklin resonates more than 240 years after it was uttered. The irony of Old Ben’s observation is that many people in our era act and speak with such certitude, especially in regard to religion and politics.
There is a mental process that takes place in the brain, whether the subject is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, gun control, abortion, gay marriage, political candidates, the existence of God or a myriad of other controversial topics. Someone hears a hot topic. An opinion forms and then, in the blink of the eye, that opinion becomes fact. Within milliseconds, that “fact” becomes a judgment laced with all kinds of emotions. At that point, there is only one “true” perspective on that issue and that belongs to the one who just instantaneously converted an opinion into a judgment.
Before we examine the steps we need to alter this cycle, we need to discern that we are often governed by fear rather than reason. We usually make major decisions based on feelings rather than fact. Research backs this up. We crave certainty, because the alternative – uncertainty – can be downright terrifying.
Socrates summed up this desire for certainty 2,500 years ago: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” In other words, humility is the greatest antidote to our desire for certainty.
According to the authors of the book “Difficult Conversations” – Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen – there is an effective step-by-step method to deal with strong opinions in others that make relationships so stressful. By understanding these steps, we can disarm and disconnect those emotions and dial the judgments back to their rightful place as opinions. In many cases, by following those steps, problems can be solved that otherwise would result in shouting matches or worse.
Step one in dealing with difficult conversations is to simply listen to the other person with the attitude of curiosity. Start by saying, “Tell me your perspective on this issue.” By using the word, “perspective,” the judgment of the other is changed from a judgment to what it really is – an opinion. At the same time, perspective is a neutral word that does not offend the other person. During the time of listening, the listener should try to clarify the speaker’s words to better understand.
Step two is to summarize what the speaker just said. Use words like “I heard you say…. Is that correct?” If it is, the speaker will agree. If it’s incorrect, the speaker will correct your wording. A big part of dealing with strong emotions is that we want to be heard, not necessarily that we expect the listener to agree. Just listening with ones’ full attention sends a strong message that you care for and value their view.
Step three is then to say, “Now that I’ve heard your perspective, let me share my understanding.” Then you share. Because you respected the other person’s opinion, it is likely the other person will respect yours.
Step four contains a number of possible directions you can go. Often, the person with the different opinion will come to understand your perspective and will gain more information than he/she may have considered. That person may not agree, but at least their understanding of an issue has been broadened and so, hopefully, has yours. Trying to find common ground – areas of agreement – should also be a part of this process. At worst, you can state, “I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”
I have used these steps repeatedly while mediating parenting plan modifications between divorced parents who are so upset and emotionally involved that they have not really talked with each other for years. Any conversations they had were shouting matches of recriminations and blame.
After difficult mediation sessions, I have often observed that each party has gained a deeper understanding of the other. Their enemy has morphed into a human being instead of a selfish monster. If divorced parents can reach that level of understanding, a measure of victory for their shared children has been achieved.
The key to dealing with conflict lies in humility. Remind yourself of Franklin’s and Socrates’ words. Be aware we know nothing and the only things we can be absolutely certain about are death and taxes.