Are We Ready for Our Next Difficult Conversation?

Our next difficult conversation with someone who might get angry and leave in a huff is on the horizon. Unless our bubble is thicker than likely, we’re going to meet someone outside it, maybe when we least expect it.

Today’s political and social climate makes it more difficult to have civil conversations. Both the example of the current holder of the White House and the fact that Democrats are in the midst of a primary contest that reflects panic, have resulted in the triggering of so many. Disagreements turn unpleasant in the blink of an eye.

Even calls for civility in conversation and politics today sound as if they’re the talk of someone who has the privilege to benefit from living unaffected above the fray while others are hurting because of the current environment. Like walking in a minefield, one can never be certain where one’s step will set off an explosion.

It’s tempting to run from it all, to turn inward and come back out later – if there is a later – leaving to others the activity that makes both progress and regress. Staying out of the community around us by resigning hopelessly, turning inward, crossing our fingers, praying harder, and vowing never to talk to anyone about anything that upsets us with disagreement, however, isn’t a non-action.

It’s taking sides with those who don’t stay out of the conflict and have the most power to change things their way, for better or worse. If elections didn’t matter anymore, the Koch brothers, right-wing PACS, and Republican voter suppression initiatives, wouldn’t be spending billions on them.

Getting us out of their way, discouraging us, and making us think that our conversations, activism, and votes don’t matter is their goal. If they can make us hopeless, they can win everything they want. The goal of negative campaigning is to make voters drop out.

On the other hand, if we are going to participate and engage in conversations with others about more than the weather or the latest binge-watchable TV series, we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for them. And that’s more difficult than just jumping into the conversations themselves because it takes sustained, conscious, often temporarily unpleasant, self-work.

We’re going to have to take time not only for reflection on the conversations we’ve had but to think about and deal with what triggers us when someone disagrees either civilly or not. For if I have stuff with someone else’s stuff, that’s my stuff - and I’ve got to consciously, deliberately raise my awareness of and clean up my stuff.

A conversation where no matter what the other person says or how they say it doesn’t trigger us is rare but possible. It would be one where we can respond calmly but firmly, creatively, even with humor, and with awareness of what we are saying and why.

“A gentleman,” Oliver Herford (America’s version of Oscar Wilde) said, “is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.”

Being conscious, aware, centered, mindful, in the moment, present (whatever you want to call it) in the conversation, means examining what changes the conversation in our minds from a learning and sharing experience with another human being who will be triggered by what we say because they’re not examining their past hurts and pain, into a frustrating, discouraging, disheartening, or heated exchange.

We all get caught. You and I are no exceptions no matter how often we’ve thought about this. Going into denial about it might feel as if we’re in a safe place, but it helps no one including us.

So to begin, let’s reflect upon some questions. Since we’re not perfect yet (Right?) and life is supposed to be a “live and learn” deal, we’ll have to reexamine our answers every time we find ourselves triggered.

· What is my goal for being in this conversation here and now? Why am I in it? Why do I stay in it as it becomes more unpleasant? Why don’t I walk away?

· What does this conversation mean to me beyond its immediate moments? Do I feel as if the whole movement I represent will collapse if I don’t succeed here and now? Wouldn’t that fear be too much pressure for any human being to take on and thus muddle my presence in the moment?

· When does the argument over a political idea, a religious belief, a matter of history or other fact feel personal? What brought that on?

· When does this interaction change into an exercise in me winning, bolstering my ego, or needing to get back at someone? Why do I need to have the last word?

· When does it change into proving that I’m smarter or, at least, not stupid to this person? When did I start fearing that I needed to be understood by this person? Why do I care? Why do I interpret this particular interaction as a test of any of that?

· What is triggered in me from past experiences that results in me becoming tense and feeling personally attacked? In religious arguments, because most people have been hurt in the past by religious people and institutions, does my reaction reflect that I really haven’t dealt with my own hurts around religion and grown from awareness of what they are?

· How am I justifying as righteous and just any anger, as the need to tell the truth, the need to be honest, or some other personal need? As a secondary emotion, anger covers up others below it that we don’t want to examine or admit, such as hurt, fear, and confusion. Why not learn by examining the deeper emotion later in an appropriate setting?

Observing where we are in these arguments and setting up support systems, listening partnerships, close friendships, or even therapy sessions, where we can examine our answers outside the conversation itself is a healthy thing to do.

The fact is that facing difficult conversations is, well, difficult. And being frustrated by them is how it goes.

Just being there in them as a real human being who disagrees with someone, is more important that what is said. Like telling one’s own story, it personalizes what might be a generalization about “those people” even when we say nothing more than: “Please understand that you and I disagree.”

So to do this, we must be aware before we strategize about what to say, where we are when we say it. And the more of these difficult conversations we take on, the more we’ll learn about ourselves, our life of growth, and where the dangers still lie, buried in our own minefields.

© 2020 Robert N. Minor

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Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org

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