DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS – THE NINE STEP PROCESS
In the previous article in this three-part series we set the background and considered the necessary considerations that show us how to avoid the classic pitfalls in difficult conversations, and conversely, why without applying that knowledge our best motivated efforts at resolving these complex conflicts actually tend to make them worse. In the previous article we briefly referred to a nine-step framework that we can use in trying to have these difficult conversations where we are dealing with people’s values and identities, and where we realize that we are really dealing with an ideologue on the other side, someone who may hold a very strong position and worldview that may not be crafted from the objective facts as we see them.
This framework is presented here as a step-by-step process, but experience of course will teach us that these heated arguments do not play by any rulebook, and that we should approach them ready to skip a step in the prescribed process, or change the sequence of application depending on the dynamics of the situation. Hopefully the reader will gather the essence of the underlying principles involved here, and apply them under fire.
I am deeply indebted to authors in the conflict resolution field that have each contributed to this framework, either on the popular level, such as James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, Kenneth Cloke and Bernard Mayer, or in the academic level, such as Christopher W. Moore, Robert Baruch, Robert Mnookin, Deepak Malhotra and many others. Detailed references and recommendations are available on request.
When we have then determined that it is indeed necessary or unavoidable to have one of these complex conversations, we can broadly follow the following steps.
Arguments about most objective facts, questions of history, figures and those not involving a person’s identity and values should still be addressed using facts as one of your primary tools. Your assessment is key – get that wrong and you will be using the wrong tools for the job. Indicators that may assist you would be views that seem irrational to you, opinions that are strongly and forcefully expressed, and often these views find themselves embedded in political, religious or family settings. They are often views that are not open to objective verification and they elicit strong push-back when they are challenged.
Remind yourself that you are, at least in their perception, attacking this person’s value system. Research and experience show that people are simply not brow-beaten out of these opinions. A change of heart in these categories come at great cost to the person changing their views, both as far as their own view of themselves are concerned (we like to think of ourselves as consistent), as well as their public image. Imagine the consequences for someone that was known as a supporter of Mr. Trump now advocating the values and correctness of Mr. Biden.
You can accept that your success in this minefield will depend heavily on securing the other person’s self-worth and then helping to reach the new, desired conclusion in a manner that, to them, feels as if they arrived there themselves. Any coercion will bring up the defences and you will start arguing against yourself. At this stage you need to rather clearly acknowledge their good intentions and affirm that they are, and that you regard them as, a good, moral person. Also make sure that this type of discussion does not take place in a hurried manner, in an uncomfortable place, or at a time when either of you may be more irritable than usual. Weeks of work can be undone with one aggressive reply.
We often make our conflicts harder and more contentious than what they need to be simply by the words we use to try and describe them. Arguments that may have been unskillfully verbalized in earlier forms, or specifically crafted to create conflict by the media or politicians, may seem very different arguments once we have considered the language that we are using. This crucial stage requires you to skillfully change the harmful terminology and associations to the underlying values involved. So we need to change a conflict about black / white people to one about South Africans, we change a “vax/anti-vax” argument to how to best ensure the safety of people, and so on. This stage highlights also the fact that you need to think about your approach before you stumble into a shrill screaming match. Do some preparation, find out what this is about, read something espousing the opposite view.
This is the hard work part of the process. Here we have the actual conversation. We should be mindful of not at this stage being seen as critical or accusatory. Instead of arguing in the standard confrontational manner, we ask open-ended questions (“How then do we ensure that innocent people are not harmed by allowing personal choice to be paramount?”). We avoid aggressive or negative non-verbal contributions from our side, we avoid the joys of a gotcha moment, sneering at arguments, eye-rolling, denigrating opposing experts. Acknowledge progress and fair positions, re-inforce their views of themselves (“I know you to be a fair guy, so ….” or “I know that you would never stand up for an injustice”). Work with shared human values such as fairness, compassion, respect and where appropriate, also bring in values important to the specific person, such as religious, political or family values. Here you may start to use information that you may regard as objective, such as books, articles, opinions (see next step) without such information being presented as better or more valuable simply because you say so.
Remember that all of this must happen as a conversation, not a fight. Constantly check your tone of voice, your demeanor. Are you starting to warm to the fight? This is where things go wrong and slip back into right / wrong dichotomies. Remind yourself that the prize is to change this person’s mind, not to win a right / wrong competition.
You have now reached the engine room of this technique. Briefly put, you need to create doubt around the strongly held worldview, you need to weaken or sever the link between that belief and the identification that this person has with her identity and values. This may be as easy as showing her an alternative way of thinking, an acceptable alternative to that first view. This can result in a thought process finding that “A good person believes 123, but people who believe 456 are also good people.” Remind yourself that the person will only change their mind in a sustainable manner if they arrive at this conclusion themselves, and that your job is to aid in that process. Make sure that you listen attentively, that you are not perceived as being judgmental.
This doubt is created in several ways, the best method being a questioning of their moral epistemology – how do they arrive at those conclusions. Here we find the very prevalent phenomenon of people (including ourselves) holding some very important and strong views…. based on some very flimsy evidence and thought processes. These received wisdoms are often to be find linked to statements such as “Everyone knows this”, “People say”, “It has always been this way” and a clear struggle to explain why this view is held. We find these “truths” in worldviews such as “Christianity is better than Islam”, “Women are more emotional than men”, “White people work harder than black people” and “Vaccinations are harmful”. Here we ask exploratory questions for the person to examine their own processes. Examples of such questions, delivered in a non-judgmental and neutral manner, as a joint problem solving exercise, would include “How do you know that?”, “Other than your own experience, have you had any experience outside that group?”, “Are there other scientists in the field that may hold different views?” and a link between a “bad” view and a “good” person, in other words “I understand that you believe ABC, as far as I know Mr. Jackson believes DEF, do you believe that he is a hateful person?”. Once that tenuous link is exposed (“Well, I have seen three YouTube videos that all confirm my position”) half of your work is done.
Remember also that the value of this section lies in the questions, the start of a process of doubt, not in the answers. Do not turn the answers into an argument, do not judge or argue about the answers. All you need to do is to light the fires of doubt and the person should do the rest themselves. It is here also where you can start to introduce more actual objective facts, not as weapons but as alternatives to consider. “I have seen those videos, and I believe that Dr. Kwetana of Cambridge has written a book that holds a very different view.” Try to disrupt their well-rehearsed rote answers. Instead of asking “Why won’t you be vaccinated?” ask more general questions dealing with the underlying morals involved in the debate, such as “What makes for a good citizen in a time of a pandemic?” and “How can we contribute to our community’s safety during times like these?”.
As we will see just now, this process may require days, weeks or months. Once you are satisfied that sufficient doubt has been created and that the person has started questioning their own views (as a spontaneous process, not because you told them to do so), you can start testing the boundaries by being a little firmer on the conclusions and alternatives. Once someone accepts alternatives as viable and acceptable to them, they will most probably start doing the work themselves in either changing their minds or at least in being more open and accepting of those alternatives. See your challenges as ranging on a scale, and not a binary proposition. If you can move someone from a strongly held “All good people reject divorce” to a more gently held “Good people do not get divorced, but I understand that it is difficult for some people, and that some good people do end up divorced” you have already moved a mountain. Ask questions highlighting this shift, including statements (see the concept of “golden bridges” below).
You may need months or more to meaningfully change someone’s worldview in this category of identities and values. Some of these views may be so ingrained as to have actually become a part of that person’s personality. It is scary to leave these comfortable views behind, and to accept new ones. Be patient, respectful, compassionate.
We think of ourselves as consistent beings, we value that, and in some cultures a change of heart is seen as actual weakness. Here lies a very strong challenge if you really wish to help this person. If your progress is going to be perceived as a “win” for you, you will lose every yard of progress and probably end up making things worse than when you started. No one likes to be wrong, especially on important views. Someone who held a particularly nasty view of a specific race group, and who even have become known for such views, will have additional difficulties in being a proverbial new person. Such a change can be liberating, of course, but that new view can also have public and social consequences. Your work with one person will probably not have much effect on that person’s friends and family who all still hold the previous view. This is where a lifeline, a golden bridge from that side to this side must be built into your process. The result is not arrived at because the person is stupid or wrong, or because you are brilliant. It was a joint process where everybody learned a lot, a process where that person must be allowed to save face in his or her community. Make specific allowance for this.
It is naïve to think that we can (or even should) change everyone’s mind, even when it comes to harmful worldviews, even when doing so would be in their best interests. To turn this technique into another weapon in the arguments we have would be to spectacularly miss the point. Continued efforts may simply serve to make matters worse. Not every relationship can, or should be saved and changed. If you have done your best and it does not work, learn to walk away with grace and goodwill. Do not destroy any invisible seed that you may have sown in that person. In the next post (the third in the series of three) we look at a few other techniques to make use of in complex conflicts, including a few non-verbal signposts that could help is navigate our way through them.
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