Once upon a time, you probably had a teacher tell you to pipe down. Or maybe it was a soccer coach asking you in no uncertain terms to zip it. Or maybe it was your mom, with all the finest intentions, suggesting that perhaps, if you have nothing nice to say, you don’t say anything at all. Mom, we know you meant well, but we’re about to undermine you, because we have it on good authority that open conversations are more important today than ever — and way more important than just being nice.
Who do we have backing us up? A group of people who know a whole lot about, well, talking! The TED Radio Hour podcast recently released an episode called Dialogue and Exchange, and the whole gang was there: a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church who’s seen the error of her formerly militant ways, a Stanford University psychology and sociology professor, a former foreign minister of Norway, a journalist who’s devoted several years of her life to research for a book called We Need to Talk, and a rabbi.
The consensus among these dialogue experts is that the dialogue needs to remain honest and open — and that’s true of any conversation you’re having. Whether you’re in an intense political debate with a co-worker or at a stand-off with your sister about where to go on your next family vacation, we think you’ll find that the insights about conversation shared on this episode of TED Radio Hour will change the way you approach tough (or even not so tough) talks. Here are a few of our favorite key takeaways about dialogue:
- Social media doesn’t have to be divisive. The Twittersphere gets a pretty nasty rap, but Megan Phelps-Roper — who grew up on picket lines with the controversial Westboro Baptist Church and has since left that community — sees it differently. Twitter, she says, is what helped her begin to understand the serious issues that people took with the ideas she and her family defended, an understanding that didn’t come from years of shouting matches at protests. “My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more formative than two decades of outrage, disdain, and violence.”
- You don’t have to abandon your own opinion to have a reasonable, productive conversation with someone who disagrees with you. Stanford University professor Robb Willer discusses a conversational technique called moral reframing, which is basically a fancy phrase for what happens when you talk through a problem or issue from another person’s point of view, focusing more on their perspective than your own. Often, Willer says, people avoid this kind of dialogue because they worry it will require them to forget their own principles — but it’s not true! The best dialogue happens when you’re willing to both argue (nicely) your view and show a little empathy for someone else. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
- There are only five keys to having a good conversation. Journalist and expert interviewer Celeste Headlee recommends just a handful (literally) of practices for dialogue. 1.) Don’t multitask. 2.) Use open-ended questions. 3.) Go with the flow — of your thoughts. Let go of thoughts that cross your mind mid-conversation and resist the urge to jump in and share them immediately. 4.) Don’t equate your experience with someone else’s. You know that feeling when someone jumps in with a “ditto!” after everything you say? Yeah, that’s the worst. Don’t do it. 5.) Listen. Well, duh. “It takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you’re not doing that, you’re not actually in a conversation,” Headlee says.
- You need to seek out people who disagree with you. “We’re surrounded almost entirely by people just like us,” says Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. “I think we need to renew those face-to-face encounters with people not like us. It’s the people not like us who make us grow. It’s the people like us who make us more fixed in our beliefs.” Get out of your Facebook feed and out of your own head and learn something from someone you know won’t share your opinions.
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