There are usually several issues in the community at any one time that produce high emotions and strong opinions. The middle school bond election in Ellensburg, the discussions over who will provide tourist-attracting activities in Upper County, and contracts for nurses within KVH facilities are a few that come readily to mind. I’m sure you can rattle-off several more.
Discussion and weighing of different perspectives is crucial for making informed choices. That idea is the basis of our democratic system. But how can we have these conversations without creating lingering divisiveness?
There are two parts to every conversation, of course – speaking and listening. We can each regulate our participation in both parts.
How you express your opinions makes a significant difference in how they will be heard. Tone of voice is essential: “Okay, clean up your room” can be expressed as a loud, angry, frustrated demand. The demand may be carried-out, but resentment and resistance likely will follow. It can also be expressed with a tone of amusement, implying a shared knowledge that the room needs to be cleaned, that the cleaner doesn’t really want to do it, and that everybody’s in on the joke. This has a better chance of yielding positive long-term results.
Whatever the situation, a respectful tone will garner more consideration of the information being shared.
It is also fundamental to separate the opinion being expressed from the person expressing it, and to avoid making it personal. For example, take one of the current topics heating-up in Ellensburg, the bond to finance a new middle school: Just because someone is in favor of the bond doesn’t mean s/he is mindlessly following the pack toward higher taxes. Likewise, just because someone opposes the bond doesn’t mean s/he is a stubborn old curmudgeon who doesn’t care about educating our tweens. How well do you think the relevant issues will be considered if the listener is accused of being mindless or uncaring?
People on both sides of the bond question could highly value education and thrift. And yet each one, after careful thought, endorses a different strategy as the best for the kids and the community. Only respectful conversation and careful listening have any hope of bringing the sides together in an acceptable agreement.
Listening is fundamental to constructive conversations. Try to understand what the other person is telling you. Curiosity and open-mindedness are conducive to learning. Most of us listen impatiently at best, using the time the other person is talking to prepare our rebuttal (or sometimes for planning what we’ll have for dinner tonight). We miss most of what is being said, verbally and non-verbally.
Here’s an interesting experiment to try: When it’s your turn to talk in a conversation, before you express your opinion, provide your partner with a short summary of what you heard them say. Knowing you’ll have to repeat what you heard means that you’ll listen better and really try to understand. It also serves the important function of checking that what you heard is what they intended to say.
We assume we already know exactly what the other person meant, without ever actually confirming it with them. This quotation attributed to G. B. Shaw says it so well: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
On contentious issues, it is tempting for us to believe the world would be a better place if everyone thought like we do. But, really, if everyone thought exactly the same, the world would miss the creative solutions that arise from blending differing perspectives.