When I think about things I’ve said in my life that I regret, I notice some common threads. First, these regrettable utterances almost always arise from some kind of conflict over something I care about. The more intensely I care, the higher the conversational stakes, the more likely it is I’ll say something I regret. The thing I’ve said that causes regret is almost always an automatic comeback: a knee-jerk reaction rather than an intentional response, usually defending myself or attacking the other in some way. My reactions in those moments can set others off and then sweep us along a downward-spiraling pathway to pointless argument, misunderstanding and damaged relationships. As I look back on those moments, I wish I’d been able to approach them differently.
Because of my work at Public Conversations Project, I know that I can approach them differently. I can prepare for what might be a challenging conversation instead of just letting it happen and dealing with its potentially harmful consequences. When we bring people together for dialogue, the participants often are people who care deeply about the topic at hand, and may also have a history of responding reactively to people who have a different point of view. We know that if we offer them the chance to prepare, a different kind of conversation is possible.
Preparing for a dialogic conversation involves thinking about how you want to be understood, remembering times when you’ve been able to achieve that end and finding out what made it possible. It also involves thinking about “the other,” considering what you most want to understand about them, and how you can listen so they will speak more openly about what matters most to them. Lastly, it involves remembering and mining the learning from your past experiences of successfully connecting across differences or in the midst of conflict.
You can prepare for a hard conversation by yourself or with a partner by asking reflective questions. Here are some sample questions from The Uncertain Path to Dialogue: A Meditation, an article by Founding Associate Sallyann Roth:
- What do I do that shuts others down?
- What makes it possible for me to listen to them?
- How can I keep from being taken over by the belief that the other person or group is really the problem?
And more questions to ponder from our pre-dialogue preparatory interview process:
- When have you had a constructive conversation with someone with whom you disagree on this issue?
- What aspects or qualities of yourself to you want to make sure to bring out, and what do you want to make sure to restrain in order for you to be at your best in the upcoming conversation?
Finally, simply taking some time to think about your purposes for engaging in the conversation will go a long way. What do you care about? What are you hoping for? What do you want to make sure to avoid? How do you want the relationship to be after this conversation? Stepping back and reflecting on these and other questions beforehand can help you respond intentionally rather than automatically. It can prevent future regrets about things said and turn a potentially destructive conversation into one of mutual learning, understanding and respect.
Want to learn more about how to prepare effectively for constructive conversation? Check out Public Conversations’ two new workshops, Preparing to Succeed and Facilitating Public Meetings, offered for the first time this spring in Greater Boston. See our entire Fall 2013 – Spring 2014 workshop schedule for trainings on dialogue design, skillful facilitation, powerful practices of inquiry, and more.