Preparing to Connect

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.

This blog post can also be found at the AmericaSpeaks blog. We thank our friends at AmericaSpeaks for this dual-post!



About Bob Stains

For the past 19 years, Bob has been active in the Public Conversations Project’s work of creating constructive conversations on issues of sexual orientation, religion, abortion, gender, social class, race and other divisive issues. He trains other senior practitioners in the Public Conversations approach and provides consultation to academic, civic and religious leaders. He also consults to the Interpersonal Skills Component of the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School, sits on the Executive Board of The Democracy Imperative, served as faculty at The Family Institute of Cambridge and as a Guest Scholar Practitioner for the Dialogue, Deliberation and Public Engagement Program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA. Bob has focused extensively on communities of faith, working to transform conflict locally within congregations and inter-faith groups, nationally within the Episcopal Church House of Bishops and internationally with the Anglican Communion. Prior to Public Conversations, he consulted to and trained therapists, clergy and "natural helpers" for 15 years, served as the Administrative Supervisor of a Clinical Pastoral Education program and was, for seven years, the clinical consultant to its Advanced Pastoral Counseling Practicum. He also maintains a private mediation, training and consulting practice in Danvers, MA.


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