Difficult Conversations, Part 1: Getting Started

1 of 3 in a series

We Have to Talk

I recently had an argument with a family member about climate change. He firmly believes that stopping fossil fuel use will plunge our world into an economic depression “like we ain’t ever seen.” Despite being utterly flabbergasted by his premise, I had to begrudgingly admit he had well researched points to back up his argument, delivered with a potent, yet unnervingly calm, vehemency. 

“Look,” he said. “I’m not saying climate change isn’t happening. But I am putting my bets on the horse that says it’s not caused by humans.”

“Evil is a judgment. Everyone thinks they are on the side of good.”

Simon Sinek

Gripping my copy of the Carbon Almanac as though my life depended on it, I could feel my face getting hot. I took a deep breath in an attempt to steady my voice, and countered with my own points about the disasters that will surely arise if CO2 emissions continued unabated. 

He was completely unmoved.

“So you want babies to starve while we wait for your scientists to prove themselves right?”

“What? Starving babies? Of course not!” I said, desperately looking around for back up, but by this time everyone else in the room had moved to safer ground. I knew it was pointless to go on arguing—nothing I could say would move him to my side. Nevertheless, I was furious and determined that, until he saw reason, I would not speak to him again (I learned later he felt the same way about me).

In retrospect, I can see how pointless our argument was. Neither side was willing to give an inch. We could have argued for days and the only result would have been that each of us would be more entrenched in our point of view.  

Arguments just like this are happening all over the world about a wide variety of controversial topics. And it’s painfully obvious they are not getting us any closer to solving the world’s challenges—if anything they are driving us further apart. 

What happens when you take sides and adopt a “you’re with me, or you’re against me” stance, like my relative and I did? You see the other as an adversary, an enemy, your opponent to be beat. The issue becomes secondary to your desire to be right. And the truth is, we won’t solve the world’s problems by entrenching ourselves deeper into our own point of view. 

“Each side plays the villain in the other’s story.”

Thomas Homer Dixon

But the good news is we don’t need to “be on the same side” to have a respectful, productive conversation. What we need to do is see the humanity in each other. To recognize that we each have something of value to contribute.

The amazing thing is that once we see the humanity in someone who doesn’t think like us, we get one step closer to solving our most pressing crisis. Because what happens when we see the humanity in another? We can’t help but care for them. And that compassion can move mountains. As Nelson Mandela so poignantly wrote, ““A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.”

Steps to a difficult conversation

  1. Seek them out. If you only converse with people who agree with you, you are depriving yourself of the chance to grow and learn. 
  2. Enter into the conversation with an open heart, empathy and a sincere desire for connection. Remember, they think they are on the side of good, just as you do. Put aside the goal to be right, or to win. Enter into the conversation with the desire to learn.
  3. Ask your conversation partner if they are also willing to enter into this conversation with an open mind and put aside the desire to be right. If not, this might not be the right time for this conversation. 
  4. Find common ground. What can you agree on? What interests do you share? This takes an open mind, open ears and some curious questions. 
  5. Separate fact from opinion; then try really hard to refrain from arguing over opinions. And realize that facts are not always as they seem. Even facts from reputable sources can have dubious origins*. When in doubt, check it out. 
  6. Understand that you cannot change the other person. No well crafted argument will change a determined mind if they don’t want to change. Instead try to build a respectful relationship that allows room for growth. Over time they may be more willing to see your point of view. 
  7. Ask lots of questions. You really want to understand where they are coming from. Why do they hold this seemingly unbreakable opinion? What’s the story behind it? What can you learn from them and about them?
  8. Learn to be ok with uncertainty and lack of closure. The conversation may not go in the direction you hope, or it may not end in a satisfactory way. This is to be expected—it does not signal failure, nor something to blame yourself for. You are venturing through uncharted territory and there are bound to be rough seas. The best thing you can do in this situation is to thank the other person for their time and express a hope that you will have an opportunity to continue the conversation at another time. 

We need to keep talking—even when it gets tough. As climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe explains:

“The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it.”

And you can just as accurately Insert racism, inequality, biodiversity loss, or any other significant challenge facing us today. Our problems don’t disappear because we refuse to talk about them, just as our adversaries don’t disappear because we refuse to listen to them. So go out there and have those difficult conversations—you’ll be amazed how empowering they can be.

Brownell, K.D. and Warner, K.E. (2007). The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died. How similar is Big Food. In Milbank Quarterly 2009 Mar; 87(1): 259–294. Retrieved on July 5, 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2879177/

Chiu, A. (2022). People don’t really talk about climate change. Here’s how to start. In The Washington Post. Retrieved on July 6, 2023 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2022/09/16/climate-change-conversation-action/

Drinko, C. (2021). We’re worse at listening than we realize. In Psychology Today. Retrieved on July 1, 2023 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/play-your-way-sane/202108/were-worse-listening-we-realize

Hill, S (2017) Are smartphones killing the art of face-to-face conversation? We ask the experts. In Digital Trends. Retrieved on July 1, 2023 from https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/are-smartphones-really-killing-the-art-of-conversation/

Turkle, S. (2015 ) Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press.