I was speaking with a long-time mentoring student who’s found himself working very hard not to become embroiled in verbal battles of late. His question to me was:

 Is there a way that we can sanely engage in intelligent conversation
that can include differing views, without resorting to hostility?

Great question, don’t you think? Is it possible to discuss politics or religion, or anything we feel passionately about, without getting locked into stalemated arguments? Which usually results in the predictable outcome of two (or more) angry people more certain than ever that they are right and that the other person is a complete idiot.

Here’s the challenge as I see it. It’s folly to think that we can engage in a discussion with angry people or people who are so certain in their beliefs, there’s no room for “other” information, and not become angry ourselves. Especially since anger is a fairly contagious emotion…

So, then when do we engage people and when do we not?

Actually, I don’t try to “engage” people, because, when you think about it, that’s really about trying to hook them into our belief system. That’s all any of it is ultimately—belief systems. So I just speak about my experience, and my thoughts on my experience. And I let it go at that. I don’t engage, I don’t continue.  Doing that only stops my own growth, because then I’m getting snagged into proving my belief. And that’s the thing–I already know what I think/believe. I want to hear about the experiences that have informed your thoughts/beliefs.

If the other person is also interested in sharing their experience, there’s usually a great conversation. If the other person comes back with pronouncements rather than an interest in exploring, then one of two results usually happen: You become embattled in hopeless disagreements, or you’re hunted by the other person in an argument that becomes a kind of fight to the death to prove that the other one is right.

I’m not interested in either of the latter experiences. So, instead, I just talk about my experience and how that has influenced my thoughts and feelings, realizing that it is only my experience. How can one argue over an experience?  It simply is an experience. What people argue over is an emotional interpretation, ego, and fear. But if you simply stay within your experience, if people choose to attack to try to force you to an emotional state, it’s a lot easier to remain clear that that’s your reality and thoughts on the matter. Working to remain clear is what helps us continue to grow.

My student’s next question was: What does conversation look like if this is what people do?

It looks like shared experiences rather than arguments and discussions of proving and disproving. “When this happened to me, this is what I thought and felt. This is how it impacted me.” From a defenseless position, meaning you’re not defending a point of view or an intellectual “source.” You are simply sharing an experience.  That gives everyone permission to look at all the input anew rather than from the typical “One Right Answer” approach. Then you’re actually able to remain in a position of truly listening rather than formulating your next rebuttal before the person has even finished their sentence. Then, through deeply listening and hearing everyone’s interpretation of their own experience, one can come to understand one’s own experience more thoroughly, while benefiting from the greater information.

Not only does this save on blood pressures boiling, it really opens the channels for creative collaboration and problem-solving. Way more fun all the way around!