How to Talk When You Don't Agree
After the 2016 presidential election, Dr. Paula Green, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, a US-based NGO focused on international conflict transformation, inter-communal dialogue, and reconciliation, turned her focus to addressing the U.S. communal relations fractured across lines of historical enmity and current partisanship.
Dr. Green, along with other residents of her hometown of Leverett, Massachusetts created Hands Across the Hills whose goal is to engage communities antagonistic to each other because of their political allegiances. Modeled on her international work, this 2017-2018 project featured extended dialogues and cultural exchanges between groups from Massachusetts and Kentucky.
For 2019, Dr. Green is facilitating a second dialogue project called Bridge4Unity, which focuses on racial divides and include participants from South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Kentucky.
We asked Dr. Green, who has 40 years of experience as a psychologist, educator, facilitator, and mentor in the field of intergroup relations to give the Aspire community her best advice on communicating with others.
Dr. Green’s Top Ten Strategies to Foster Good Communication
How we can build bridges of understanding and connection in our communities by strengthening our communication tools?
In this historical moment of polarization in our country, we are called to reach out across the lines of division and alienation. We struggle in our families, workplaces, and community organizations to understand those who perceive, vote, and value differently. We have become not just strangers to one another, but often hostile strangers. To mend the fabric of brokenness and prevent even more dangerous ruptures, here is a top ten list to increase your communication skills and strategies.
1. Active Listening – Hearing and understanding the truth of the experience of others:
Give the speaker your full and undivided attention.
Listen to learn, not to verify existing assumptions or expectations.
Listen with empathy, to see the problem from the other person’s point of view, to walk in their shoes.
Ask questions to clarify or expand your understanding, not to challenge or engage in debate.
2. Authentic Speaking – Telling the truth of your own experience:
Speak for yourself, [and] not for a group or position.
Speak to communicate your own experience, [and] not to persuade others.
Distinguish your opinion or belief from fact or ‘truth’.
Acknowledge the experiences and assumptions that have shaped your views and opinion.
Speak from your heart.
3. Develop Dialogues: Find facilitators in your community who can guide structured and sequenced conversations. Dialogue offers:
A deepening of trust and mutual care that arises from active listening and authentic speaking.
New insights and understanding of others through the creative tension of managing difference.
A reduction in the stereotypes, prejudices, and generalizations that keep us from recognizing our common humanity.
New and unexpected responses to complex problems.
4. Understand the difference between dialogue and debate:
The goal of debate is to win at all costs.
Debate includes criticism of the other. It promotes competition and aggression.
Dialogue’s goal is to discover common ground and build bridges of understanding and concern.
Dialogue considers all points of view and assumes that different ideas contribute to fuller solutions.
5. Learn to ask good questions. A good dialogue question will:
Focus on genuine curiosity.
Avoid blame or judgment.
Take participants deeper than the level of opinion or position.
Encourage thinking of old issues in new ways.
Focus on direct personal experiences, rather than arguing about facts.
Call forth new, unrehearsed responses.
6. Tolerate emotions:
Acknowledge that we all carry fear of hurting others by saying the wrong thing, feel defensive about our beliefs and our identities, and are more vulnerable than we generally admit. Where possible, share these fears in your personal communications and dialogues. Stay in control of spilling out accusations and judgments that will cause harm and set back your goal of repairing the divides.
7. Words matter: focus on the spirit of your communications:
Examine your intentions and make sure they are clear and clean.
Offer respect and dignity.
Lead with kindness.
Be receptive to the histories and perceptions of others.
Remember that all human beings have similar needs for security, recognition, respect, equality, and basic human rights.
8. Welcome differences:
Imagine what a flat world it would be if we all were exactly the same.
Acknowledge the complexities of difference.
Celebrate the many ways we live, worship, create, and believe.
Remember that every life has joy and suffering, but that not all suffering is equal.
Know that our lives are uniquely shaped by our very different circumstances.
9. Create something new:
Conscious conversations and structured dialogues allow something new to be created.
To create something new, we must become new in our own attitudes and behaviors.
Focus on yourself and your own changes rather than trying to change others, which we know is not effective and is actually counter-productive.
Envision together the social cohesion you long for in your family, workplace, community, and country. Work together to bring it into being.
10. Practice, practice, practice:
Communication skills can be developed and refined throughout our lives.
Be patient as you build your communication skills and disciplines.
Remember that the purpose is learning.
Stay through the hard places. Don’t run away from the difficulties.
Sustain and reinforce the dialogues or conversations over time. We need repeated exposure to each other to shift our attitudes and behaviors.
Make a conscious commitment to humanize others. When you do so, they become part of your circle of concern, and so do others like them who you have not met. This is the way we multiply the impact of dialogue and conscious communication.
More on Dr. Green:
Dr. Green, Professor Emerita at the School for International Training in the US, where she founded and directed CONTACT, the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures Program, a residential intensive for peacemakers from around the world.
In October 2018, Dr. Green and Hands Across the Hills received the first ever Alliance for Peacebuilding award dedicated to U.S. peacebuilding.
She also holds the “Psychology of Peace and Justice Prize” from Psychologists for Social Responsibility, 2012.
In 2009, she received an Unsung Hero of Compassion award from the Dali Lama, given to individuals who, through their loving kindness and service to others, have made their communities and our world a better place.
Dr. Paula Green at Karuna Centre for Peacebuilding. Photo Courtesy of Dr Paula Green