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Compassionate Conversations: Advice From Three Experts

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Leaning how to have real conversations about important topics with people you disagree with is a skill. These days, it's more important than ever. Diane Hamilton, Gabriel Wilson, and Kimberly Loh offer useful advice and powerful stories in their new book Compassionate Conversations.

Diane Hamilton is an author and teacher of Zen mediation. She is the executive director of Two Arrows Zen, a practice in Utah, and co-founder of the Integral Facilitator, a training program oriented to personal development and advanced facilitator skills. Gabriel Wilson is a leadership coach, organizational change consultant, and peace-builder with a specialty in diversity and inclusion efforts. They are joined by Kimberly Loh, author, coach, and peace specialist, in their collaborative new book, Compassionate Conversations: How to Speak and Listen from the Heart, in which they share stories, practices, and skills for learning how to have mindful conversations about polarizing issues. Here, we tap the authors for a sneak peek at best practices on avoiding miscommunication, tackling tough topics, and more. 

Can you give our readers some recommendations on how to have a civil discussion with someone whose values they find infuriating? 

Hamilton, Wilson, and Loh: We know this is highly challenging territory for any of us who hold strong values of social justice, fairness, and equity in society. We view all interactions as opportunities to grow our skills and to find effective ways to advocate for our views. 

Our response to these kinds of situations vary depending on context and roles. For example, in the context of family, it may be very productive to calm our nervous system and accept the premise every human being has some piece of the truth, even if the truth is they are threatened and afraid. 

The crucial skill in intimate contexts is active listening—that is, being present to one another's perspectives without invalidating them, shutting them down, or fighting back. When we can learn to soothe our nervous systems, stay present, and reflect back what we heard them say without distortion or judgment, the other person can have an experience of being heard and respected, which is fundamentally what we all want. However, it’s important to remember listening doesn’t mean agreement. 

Once a connection and mutual respect has been established, there is a much greater chance that a genuine question can be asked or a different point of view can be offered. We can lead with: “As a woman, I see this differently.” Or, “I am concerned that your comment is disparaging to these people.” Or even stronger stands like, “I stand for economic justice, so I simply disagree with your perspective.” 

Questions and even assertions offered sincerely and respectfully create human connection, which is far more persuasive than accusations or attacks. 

The term “politically correct” is often used dismissively. What are your feelings about that term?

We understand political correctness to mean making efforts to avoid offending, stereotyping, or using pejorative language when talking about groups or individuals—especially those who have been marginalized in culture. The term represents our desire to cultivate respectful speech for all people, in spite of our differences. It asks us to be more aware of our use of language and its potential to harm others. 

Sometimes, however, this effort at right speech can become dogmatic, and people can use it to criticize, disempower, or discount the views of others. When this happens, it restricts people’s ability to speak honestly and limits their willingness to take risks for fear of making mistakes. This creates tension and restraint, and contributes to a poor learning environment. 

We advocate for a willingness to become more awake to the perspectives of others, and open to the ways in which our speech can be harmful while fostering atmospheres of open dialogue and a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. 

Diane, you have a strong Zen background. Did you make a conscious effort to make this book accessible to people who may not identify as spiritual? If so, what sorts of challenges did that bring? 

Yes, we intended for the book to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. However, we do share some perspectives from the Zen tradition. For instance, we explore the power and limits of identity, and the freedom from identity that comes with sustained meditation practice. We hope this invites others to explore this idea and to inquire if daily meditation could have a beneficial impact on their way to engaging differences with others.

A lot of today’s communication is written, which can give rise to miscommunication. Can you share some tips for minimizing the problems that this can bring? 

When sending written communications, we would advise others to be simple, clear, and straightforward in expressing themselves, making sure their language is free of blame and accusations. It is often helpful, when describing problems, to also suggest solutions. It is important to be generous with our interpretations, asking for clarification when necessary. 

Rereading messages several times can assist us in being sure to receive the message accurately. And, perhaps most importantly (people almost never do this), it can be very effective to reflect back in writing what you understand the message to you to mean. We often use reflective listening in conversation, and reflection over email can have a powerful, clarifying effect and help us to get on the same page in our communications. All of these recommendations are based on a principle expressed in the book: Be For One Another. This means to affirm we want the best for each other. This value helps us to remain openminded, and forgiving, and to remember most people are doing their best. 

What advice would you give for reducing conflict in communication between children, or between parents and children?  

In family systems, good communication skills can be taught and practiced. Even small children can learn to take turns giving their perspective and listening to others. Learning to use “I statements” helps everyone share their viewpoints and take responsibility for them. Acknowledging emotions, including their energy and intelligence, while learning to let them go quickly is another important skill we can use in family life. We can employ structures like go-rounds or talking circles in the morning or around meals to communicate what is important to us on any particular day or what has happened we would like to share. Good communication skills weave families together and support them in times of stress and change. 

Do you feel the media is deliberately divisive? If so, what are some steps we can take to help keep it from dividing us unnecessarily?  

We talk about this specifically in one of our chapters. Twenty-four-hour news programs can be highly politically polarizing, and the internet includes limitless viewpoints, including those that are extreme and dangerous. The heavily saturated media environment in which we live demands we are highly selective in how we receive information, and that we make good choices about whose perspectives to which we listen. It is important to take the time to question the perspectives of news sources today and to be discerning in terms of the emotional impact of their style of reporting. 

On the internet, we have to be careful to refrain from resharing articles we cannot verify fully, even when they confirm our beliefs. And when we do come across sources we believe are balanced and well-reported, we should share these with our networks so we are positively supporting the kinds of media and news we want to see in the world: resources that will support fair, empirically sound, and emotionally mature information sharing.

In the book, you mentioned learning to minimize hostility in communication is an ongoing process, and at times you had to dust yourself off, have a good laugh, and try again after a conversation went off the rails. Can you share a story of a time when that happened?

In one workshop we conducted about race, equity, and freedom, a particularly challenging conversation occurred between two participants over power and privilege that created tremendous amount of tension in the room. We took a break, and in an effort to encourage the group to release tension and balance their energy, Gabe put on some funky music and invited people to dance and shake it off a bit. There has never been a more uptight, reluctant dance party—ever. 

After some highly awkward, stiff movements, we decided to give people a break and met in the staff room to regroup. Pretty quickly, we moved from groaning with heads in hands to cracking jokes and breaking out in peals of laughter. We shook off the intense anxiety from the dance party, and we were able to return to the group with clarity, open hearts, and a willingness to sincerely explore and learn from the challenges in the room. The experience was a great reminder to us that we are all human beings—perfect and flawed—and even our attempts to bring others together are infused with peril and potential. Our intention to cultivate more compassionate conversations is worthy in spite of the challenges. 

Read our review of Compassionate Conversations.


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