Once upon a time, my partner Leif Smith–who eventually became my husband–and I ran an information and research service called the Office for Open Network. Our clients were from all walks of life; they were innovative and articulate. Often, our conversations strayed from official business and ranged across many topics, including religion, philosophy, and current events.
One day a client stopped by to discuss a new venture, and the conversation drifted into politics. I knew that Leif and our client were on opposite sides on many issues; I happened to agree with Leif’s positions.
The conversation was both civil and what might be called energetic. At one point, the client told Leif that he found an error in one of Leif’s statements. Instead of debating the issue or becoming defensive, Leif smiled, leaned forward, and said that he was happy that the client found a mistake.
Please, Leif said, tell me more.
I was stunned. Leif was right, and the client was wrong. Leif was smarter, better informed, and, did I mention he was right? But instead of trying to win the argument, Leif thoughtfully worked to understand the client’s position and to clarify his own. No one won. No one lost. It was a conversation where they shared facts, opinions, and feelings, and explored areas where they agreed and where their convictions diverged.
The client left smiling and promised to return for what he called “more good talk”.
I sort of attacked Leif verbally as soon as we were alone.
“I don’t understand. You could have won the argument. You were right, and he was wrong,” I said.
Leif looked at me, confused and concerned, and maybe, just a little bit angry.
“I don’t care about being right. I care about the truth,” he said.
That day I experienced two life-changing events. First, I realized that conversations about difficult topics need not devolve into debates with winners and losers.
Second, I married Leif. (Several years later, but, in part, because of my witnessing that conversation.)
Thirty years have gone by. I am more conscious of my own flaws as a communicator and better able to keep from inflicting them on others. I have participated in many public meetings and formal workplace conversations as a facilitator and participant. And, I have learned that there are dozens of communication models and hundreds of techniques to foster what our client called “good talk”.
What has changed in the world since that fateful conversation? We have access to tools that allow us to converse one-on-one with millions of strangers. However, those same tools, with their hair-trigger responsiveness¬–type, send, and only then think–have a downside. I believe they are, in part, responsible for an escalation in verbal warfare, making constructive action less likely. It is most evident in the realm of politics.
Frankly, I am not looking forward to the coming national elections.
Our contribution to the fray is this free webinar, which shares some of the useful methods we have identified and employed over decades of managing relationships with clients, friends, neighbors, and family–particularly when it comes to the toughest issues, where what divides us seems insurmountable.
In addition, we encourage you to consider hosting a “Discovery” event at your workplace or institution for the public, so people can see and hear what civil discourse looks like and sounds like. It is probable that you have trained mediators in your community who could facilitate such an event.
Feel free to contact us if you have questions or concerns.
Several of our topics and recorded webinars address the issues I discuss in this webinar: