October 15th, 2012 by Anna Hagstrom
“The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation” – Jonathan Sacks
I heard the quote above a couple weeks ago, and it has stuck with me. As I’ve been mulling it over, I have seen parallels to what I do as an attorney and as a mediator. In both these roles, I am often there to support my client (as attorney), or both participants (as a mediator) in having hard conversations.
When we are willing to talk to someone, we lose the idea that they are the “other”and it becomes more difficult for us to be angry with them or think their viewpoint is out of touch. We may not agree, but often a conversation reduces the “violence” – not just in the physical meaning, but in the sense of calming emotions, reducing name calling, blaming, etc.
I was on the phone with a client recently, preparing for a team meeting in a collaborative case. I noticed that much of what we discussed in preparation for the meeting centered on being willing to have the tough conversations that might come up. He said that if a certain topic came up and he got frustrated, he would walk out. I asked him to be open to just staying in the room when things get tough.
Engaging in true conversation can be very difficult, but I think it can be broken down into two key pieces. The idea of “staying in the room” can be a broader metaphor for the first component: in order to have a conversation, we have to actually be physically present. This may sound too obvious to be worth writing, but it can be very difficult to get together to have a conversation that we are dreading. Or to bring up the thing that we really want to talk about (elephant in the room?). Once we get there or to the topic, if we can resist the urge to walk out or change the subject when things get tough, we take a step towards opening new possibilities.
If we can then do more than just being physically present – to being mentally present in that moment alone, not worrying about the past, the future, not analyzing or figuring, just as present as possible, we really open the possibilities for the conversation. This is the 2nd part: in order to have a true conversation, all participants need to be and feel heard. The way to accomplish this is often by focusing on the other person rather than on our own argument (often easier said than done).
Typically when we have a “conversation,” we are actually evaluating, thinking of comebacks, trying to problem-solve, worried about having something smart to say in response, or other self-absorbed thinking. I have experienced how it changes the dynamic in a room when one participant (even a third party mediator) begins listening not to aid their own position, but truly listening for understanding. Often, that is when progress begins.
These two steps can help us have those hard conversations: being willing to stay in the room, and trying to truly hear and understand the other person.
Is there a conversation you are dreading? Are you willing to just stay in the room, or bring up that topic? What would happen if you gave up all objectives other than really understanding that other person?