Constructive conversations are something everyone wants but few of us actually have according to Julia Dhar - a world champion debater.
As soon as we are faced with an idea that is different or against our own beliefs we are more likely to shut down rather than open up. This is called belief perseverance, which is when a person maintains a belief despite receiving new information that contradicts it.
While the internet has given us more and more places to have conversations it doesn’t mean the quality of the conversations are getting any better. In fact I'd argue that they are getting worse! If anything, we are losing the ability to connect with others that have a different outlook on life because we don’t have to anymore. We can just unfollow, mute or delete. By doing so we fill our feeds with like minded individuals, businesses and organisations that leave us with little reason to rebut.
Personally I avoid conversations that I don’t need to have if they aren’t easy. I blame this on being time poor and not having the space to invest in a good strategy to prepare myself for the conversation. I’m getting better at leaning into the discomfort of being brave but I still need the odd pep talk.
There are three features that a conversation must have to be constructive.
Firstly at least one of the people in the conversation (you) must be willing to choose curiosity over clash. Clash is exactly what it sounds like, a confrontation. A clash is a debating term given to addressing and refuting another debater's argument. Without enough clashes there is no debate. However clashes in real life tend to make people shut down or fight back.
Secondly, the conversation’s objective should not focus on a victory (a person's ‘idea’ ‘winning’) but its success should be measured by the progress that's made.
Thirdly, the conversation must have a purpose. The ultimate purpose should be to understand the other person's perspective. Louis Theroux is a perfect example of having constructive conversations with people he doesn’t share the same beliefs or values with. Instead of confronting people he tries to understand their perspective - it's made him a household name.
There is one statement and one question you need to know before entering into a constructive conversation.
“I never thought about it exactly that way before”
“What can you share that would make me see what you see?”
The remarkable thing about these two sentences is that in most instances it makes the other person more curious about you. Everybody, regardless of position, age or agenda just wants to be heard and understood. By asking someone to explain why they feel the way they do rather than fighting against it you lay the groundwork for a constructive conversation.
I’m a firm believer that there are two types of people in this world. Those who need to be right and those who want to learn. I strive to be a learner. It doesn't matter your position in life, most people tend to be either one or the other. Just think of the difference between Trump and Obama!
As the protagonist of this constructive conversation you don’t miss out either because you’re there to learn and our ideas get better when challenged. I guarantee you’d learn more from 10 constructive conversations than 100 easy conversations with people you already agree with.
It can be easier to start a constructive conversation with a stranger than it can be with the people you are closest to. If you already have a relationship with someone, whether that be a co-worker, family member or buddy it can be uncomfortable to bring up topics you know normally end in conflict. Perhaps when you're feeling brave and armed with your statement and question you give it another shot and see what you can learn. The key is to have a clear purpose. Without purpose we are destined to run in circles.
This week I’ve been looking for opportunities to approach conversations with the intention of making progress rather than ‘winning’. I’m choosing to be curious rather than to clash and best of all I’m expecting to develop my ideas through the discussion. It’s a shame this week we’ve been in lock down and most of my conversations have been with my 4 year old who’s been homesick off daycare. Although having a constructive conversation with a 4 year old about the social dynamics of Peppa Pig was pretty enlightening!