Tackling those controversial conversations

How hard it is for us as humans to clearly represent ourselves, our values and beliefs, in a way that maintains relationships with others? So often an emotional process gets in our way of us either being able to speak our truth, or in the way of  us staying in good contact with the other person.

“Will they still like me if I’m honest about where I stand on this?” 

“Will they reject me as a person?”

Or on the other side of the coin…

“They need to agree with me for us to get along”

“If they don’t like it, screw it! I don’t need them anyway!”

Think back to the last time you had a tricky interaction with another. Are you one of the rare ones that can easily represent themselves while staying in good contact? Or where any of those statements above going through your mind, even perhaps unconsciously? If they were, you are not alone.

I’ve spent hours observing conversations such as these and have found peoples strategies of navigating them fascinating. Let’s say you’re in conversation with someone about a heated topic- perhaps it’s the pipeline, American Politics, religion.

Two common themes often play out:

1. We become emotionally reactive, and very quickly.  Out of our discomfort with different views we move to the place of “you need to understand me”, “you need to agree with me”. And the more and more heated it gets from both sides trying to “convince” the other, the more and more ridged we become, and the more closed the other becomes to us and vice versa.

Isn’t it interesting that so often in our efforts to open the other up to our ideas we actually end up slamming the door shut.


2. We become emotionally distant- the other side of the same coin.  We worry about what might happen if we speak our thoughts on the topic so we don’t say anything at all. Out of our discomfort with differences we might completely avoid the topic. Or we might be moved to agree with the other just to get the conversation over with.

In both examples, elements of reactivity and avoidance are there. In both example, we are not able to both represent our beliefs while maintaining relationship with the other.

You might be asking yourself  “Why does this matter?” “Why can’t I just keep doing what I’m doing?”

My answer is- you can.

If you fall into one of the two examples above and you’re OK with it. Carry on.  Don’t change a thing. If what you’re doing is working for you and who you want to be, keep doing it.

But if you find you fall into one of the two examples above, and it doesn’t feel all that great, I invite you to reflect on these questions:

What are my values and beliefs? Where do they come from? Do they belong to me? Or do they belong to someone else? Why are they so important to me?

How much intensity is behind this belief? Is this intensity bringing me closer to or further from my hoped outcome?

What would it take for me to clearly articulate myself, without being attached to the outcome?

What would it take for me to be in front of someone who has differing beliefs and work to open the conversation up, rather than shut it down?

What would it take for me to represent myself while also working to maintain connection with the other?

What is one thing I can do today, to shift my default pattern? Is this realistic?

I think it’s important to acknowledge the courage it takes to represent ourselves in a calm, non-reactive way. It means that we need to sit in the intensity of differences and lean in, rather than out. My belief is that it is through these efforts that we can get closer to those we care about while creating changes to ourselves, changes to our relationships, and changes to the world.

How in the world are we going to make the world a better place if we can’t tolerate being around different views. How are we ever going to influence change if we can’t even be in the same room with differences?

I am going to totally self-disclose that I have lived through both of those two examples. Earlier in life I lived in example one, and more regularly now I live in example two. It has been an ongoing, emotional, hard process of me to move out of these patterns but by reflecting on the questions above I’ve been able to make some progress. Through my relationship efforts, being curious and being clear with my values and beliefs I’ve felt lighter. I’ve learned from others (thanks Skafti), I’ve been challenged (thanks Skafti, again), I’ve evolve in my thinking, and I’ve even given others opportunity to reflect on their perspectives. It’s no longer about changing the other, it’s about trying to get clearer on me.

If this is something that is of interested to you that you’d like to explore please don’t hesitate to contact me. This is something I am passionate about as I am continuing to find my way through it too. And if you’d like to watch a video for a good laugh on the topic check out this blog post that contains a funny link to a Saturday Night Live skit.

Written by Kathy Kutzer, MSW, RSW, RCC

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