Heck yeah, we’re going there. Hop in, buckle up, and let’s see where this essay takes us. Here’s a conversation I had on the first day of a new job:
Coworker: “Hey, congratulations! Welcome to the team!”
Me: “Thanks! I’m excited to be here!”
Coworker: “Cool! So, how much are they paying you?”
Me: “Well, I thought we’d talk about politics and religion first, but sure, we can start there…”
We laughed, moved on, and are still good friends, but we all know some chats are riskier than others. There are some valuable tools you can employ when navigating this rocky terrain. And that’s where we’ll start.
Know Your Goal
Conversations are, fundamentally, an exchange of ideas and information. Conversation isn’t “won.” Consider this: the end goal doesn’t have to be agreement. Also, keep this in mind — openness.
It’s helpful to be open to the other participant’s ideas. Listen to learn, not to judge. Who knows? You might change your mind. Or not. At least, however, listen while being open to the possibility that your partner in dialogue is still your friend/neighbor/whatever, albeit with ideas different than your own. A conversation is a relationship. You and another person, or people, are sharing — it’s an exchange.
Remember the hideous sweater your aunt gave you for your last birthday? Did you tell her she was stupid for giving it to you? If you did, you should stop reading here and go apologize. If not, think about how you did handle it. You probably smiled, thanked her, and just maybe, you suggested she consider a gift card next year.
Regardless of how, or if, you engaged, you love your aunt. She has bad taste in sweaters. You probably can’t change that.
If, however, you want to roll up your sleeves, get down and dirty, and expose weak arguments while crushing someone else with your data and superior insights, you are looking to debate. The rules of engagement are different.
Debate is valuable. Do your research. Know your facts. Engage respectfully. Remember that advice about listening to learn? Here’s where you listen to respond. Before you do, make sure both sides are on board with an animated exchange. Set a time, and time limit, if necessary. When you’re both worn out, hoarse, and devoid of retorts, stop. Shake hands, bump elbows, give a nod, whatever. The key is to acknowledge the debate is done and hopefully, your relationship is not.
It comes out of nowhere. You’re chatting with an acquaintance you know, from experience, to be kind, funny, and helpful. But then they casually mention support for THAT candidate.
At first, it’s a barely noticeable hum that builds to a rumble. Next, giant thunderheads materialize out of nowhere and roll in, darkening the skies. Finally, there’s a splitting crack of lightning and, voila! this person is revealed as the villain they truly are. So much for Carol, the first-grade teacher you used to like so much.
Worth it? Maybe, but probably not. I am not telling you to be friends with everyone. Sure, there are relationship-ending revelations. But, before it comes to that, get yourself in a calm place and take stock. Channel some empathy. Consider perspective. Give them chance. Abraham Lincoln is said to have put it this way, ” I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
You are unlikely to ever stumble upon someone with views identical to your own. And if you did, you might get bored pretty quickly. So if you can build on common ground and move minefield issues to the side, like the can of beans that will forever be in the corner of your pantry, you just might be able to maintain a happy alliance.
Seriously, you knew this was coming. So why I ask you, do we persist in posting ubiquitous bile, without context or personal insight, in the most public of spaces – social media – and wonder why we are angrier and less personally connected than ever? Choose where to engage in incendiary dialogue. Social media isn’t the place.
Please continue posting indulgent meals, enviable vacations, adorable kids and pets, and new outfits/weight loss/spouses etc. A good rule of thumb is this: if it requires more thought and insight than the Fettuccine Alfredo you just liked and the inspirational quote that’s next in your feed, skip the part where you hit “post.”
Baby Yoda Sure is Cute
And ice cream is delicious. And hugs feel good.
For those of you who are “Yoda-averse,” lactose intolerant, and highly claustrophobic, feel free to consider something else you like that you’re pretty sure a lot of other people like, too. Yes, even some people with whom you disagree completely on other issues. Sometimes the best way to handle fraught topics is not to handle them at all. Instead, focus on commonalities.
Sure, I have different ideas and views than some of my friends. It’s fantastic! We challenge each other in a civil way and emerge from conversations with evolved perspectives. However, other friends and I take that hands-off approach. We have an unspoken, and occasionally, spoken agreement to not broach “those” topics, whatever they are. We do not have everything in common. But, we do share enough that time together and thoughts exchanged leave us happier.
Not all your friends have to be your soulmates. You can have friends with disparate opinions. You’re not obligated to share all your inner thoughts, nor must you engage those around you in groupthink. Surface relationships are no less valid or valuable. After all, Baby Yoda’s cuteness has sent more happiness my way than plenty of other things.
Grandma Was Right
“If you don’t have something nice to say,….” If you’ve been on the same planet I’m on, it’s been quite a year. Collectively, we have grown, struggled, adapted, supported, helped, and hoped. And that, friends, is before 11 am most days. The key here is that we’ve done it collectively.
Have you ever tried the exercise in which you count to five before you say that thing that your conscience is begging you to rethink? I’m impatient, so my test is shorter. I ask that two-word question, “Worth it?” If my motivation to speak is not respectful and well-intentioned, I default to “no.” There are plenty of nice things to say, and grandma will be proud.
All Together Now
In one of my favorite books, “Elastic Thinking” author Leonard Mlodinow challenges readers to a thought experiment meant to improve mental flexibility. So I spent a week actively working to hold a view completely counter to my own.
It was rough. At first. Next, it was eye-opening. No, I didn’t have an epiphany and change my view. However, I did gain insight. Empathy. And, even some tolerance.
Life is not a solo sport. We need and rely upon one another. We are more than our politics, religion, identity, or affiliations. Let’s resolve to engage respectfully, disagree civilly or silently, and do our best to live together in unity. It might not be easy, but the most important things never are.