friends arguing

Here’s how we can turn heated conversations into helpful conversations…

With TONS of controversy in the world right now, here are some tricks for having productive conversations.

Last week a friend of mine told me about a talk she had with another friend that has effectively ended their friendship. As she told me about this argument, I couldn’t clearly see that neither of them were wrong, just that they had differing opinions. This isn’t a unique situation.

With so many things going on, and so many people feeling so passionately, we’re bound to have disagreements and some of them can be very heated.  You may even decide that some of them are worth ending a friendship over (your call, dude). But this reminded me of a blog I read years ago.

There’s a Social Worker/blogger I follow Named Vu Le who runs a blog called Nonprofit AF (formerly Nonprofit With Balls). Yes, these tips are aimed mostly at service providers. But, I have used them a million times and I share them with friends and family any time they have to have a sucky conversation.

I want to reiterate that I DID NOT write this list.  However, I am going to give you my take on each of the “steps” as we go, and discuss how they can be helpful outside of the social work realm.

1. Give each other a break

Chances are, If you’re struggling with a topic or if it’s uncomfortable for you, it probably is for other people too. People are mad, hurt, and anxious right now for A LOT of reasons. Handles are getting flown off of where they normally wouldn’t. It’s extra important right now to give each other a little extra grace and compassion.

2. Assume good intentions, but also address impact

It’s easy to assume intent on an action. Unfortunately, we usually get it wrong. When someone does something that negatively impacts us, we usually automatically assume that they did it with the intent of hurting us. I’d bet that 9 times out of 10 that’s not the intent. You should, however, address how this impacted you with the offender. But when you do…

3.Provide feedback on actions and opinions, but not on motivation or character

This one ties in with number 2. If I were to come to you and say, “You took my pen because you wanted me to not be able to do my job today! You wanted to be the one with the pen!”, that automatically puts you on the defensive. You’re going to feel like your character is being attacked. That’s a guaranteed way to push an argument, or shut down a conversation completely. That’s the OPPOSITE of what we’re trying to do here.  Instead, just talk about the action itself, like saying, “You took my pen and I’m mad.” Same goes with opinions. If I say “You only think that because you’re______”, whatever fills in that blank will automatically be seen as a derogatory. It’s perfectly okay to let someone know you disagree with their opinion. It’s not okay to assume WHY they have that opinion.

4. Don’t assume you completely understand someone else’s reality

Because you don’t, even if you share a similar background, upbringing, familiar structure, etc. with the person you’re disagreeing with. If you have not lived this person’s life, or been inside their head and experienced things AS THEY EXPERIENCE THEM, you do not understand their reality. Of course you can still empathize with someone without fully understanding…and you should.

5. Be gracious when accepting feedback

Hearing that we’ve done something wrong is something most of us hate. It puts us on the defensive. We often have the knee-jerk reaction of “No I’m not!” or “No I didn’t!” But feedback is a gift. It’s a tool to better yourself. It sucks to have to admit you’re wrong or (gasp!) not perfect! It’s also ok to realize that the feedback you’ve gotten isn’t true. However, you have to first ask yourself if there is any validity behind it. Then, appreciate it, use it (or at least consider using it), then, move on.

6. Forgive yourself. Forgive each other.

Whatever feedback you give or get DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BAD PERSON. Whatever feedback you give or get DOESN’T MAKE THEM A BAD PERSON. We as humans like to hold grudges right? Having a few negative qualities and areas to improve upon isn’t something you need to hold a grudge against yourself OR the other person. We are all going to make mistakes, put our respective feet into our mouths, and say things that will make us want to crawl into holes. When that happens, make your amends and then forgive yourself. When it happens in reverse, and someone else makes a mistake making you want to put your foot in their mouth, hoping they’ll crawl into a hole, forgive them too.

7. Don’t give up on each other

Finally, it’s always easiest to walk away. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m so done with him/her!” Yes, there are situations where that is completely appropriate. However, there are MORE situations where that is taking the easy way out. I’m not saying sit it out until you agree, as this isn’t the backseat of your mom’s car where she made you hold hands until you could get along. You can agree to disagree. You cannot refuse to talk to anyone who has differing views from you. Don’t write anybody off just because you disagree.


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