How do we have an actual “conscious conversation” anyway?

Around this time of year, I usually start to get some requests for information about how to engage with folks who have really different perspectives. Whether it’s a Twitter feed, election discourse, or heading home to see friends and family for the holidays we may start to feel the pressure of the danger and opportunity of conflict. Disagreeing with someone can be risky if we aren’t thinking about how to engage mindfully. In organizational settings a lack of psychological safety and the presence of negative tension can have tangible costs as well. But we can engage more humanely and harness the opportunity present as well.

Whenever I’m doing a workshop about communicating effectively across difference, I start by asking what words people associate with conflict. With rare exception, the answers are overwhelmingly negative associations with such an encounter. While conflict is inevitable, it does not have to be inherently negative or destructive. I’ve included some tips for harnessing positive tension and engaging in generative conflict below, but a few reminders are essential. Personal safety and well-being are important. If someone is intentionally trying to harm you (e.g., using derogatory language, attacking you) or have reason to believe the conflict could have a severe consequence for you (i.e., your family will kick you out of your home) no amount of mindful engagement tips is enough. We exist in complexity and come to these conversations from different lived and embodied experiences. Systems of oppression and the attitudes that enable them to continue are real. Our identities impact our level of risk and our safety and support nets. We have to be self-reflexive about our own positionalities and realistic about our resources to respond to difficulty. There is some real wisdom in the old saying “pick your battles.” However, when we have capacity, we truly can learn from difference and difficulty.

Often when we are confronted by positions or perspectives that don’t align with our own, we are activated. We may feel our fight, flight, or freeze response kick in. When we are able to identify that activation, we can work to center ourselves (maybe with a deep breath or a pause) and ask the following:

  • What am I observing?
  • What feelings are coming up? (Use an expansive emotional vocabulary to recognize complex emotional states)
  • What meanings do I attach to those feelings?
  • What are the possible reasons for what I’m observing?

Often, the position someone has taken does not reveal motivation, reasons, or values that are underneath that stance. We should engage with curiosity and compassion. This can look like asking a lot of questions to better understand where someone is coming from or check our own interpretation of what someone is saying. If you find yourself trying to connect with people in your life who have significantly different ideas about the world and the people in it, I like to think about the four C’s – consistent, continual, compassionate, challenge.

Consistent – increase your own knowledge about the thing you care about so you can provide consistent information either about your own lived experience or other critical data

Continual – don’t give up. One conversation probably won’t be enough when the difference or difficulty is big, but if the relationship is important to you, keep going.

Compassionate – remember that spirit of curiosity. When we are able to engage critically from a place of love it is more powerful than communication that might be felt as mean-spirited or focus on shame and blame.

Challenge of taken for granted assumptions. Discomfort is at the root of growth and learning. When we create a braver and safer space with the people in our lives we can explore difference and difficulty with cultural and intellectual humility.

One final note – For those of us with more positionality and power we may come to (perhaps unconsciously) feel we have a right to comfort. We have to ask some tough questions about what activates us and why. We have to see critique (even unskilled or imperfect feedback) as a gift and open up to gaining new perspective to move through these tough moments rather than around them. When we do this hard, and also heart work we can come to care about the interests of others and stop requiring people to defend their dignity when they are sharing difficult information. This is how we find a path to dialogue and more conscious conversation.

Published to Nicholson News on November 1st, 2022.

This article was written by Jennifer Sandoval, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Assistant Director of Inclusive Culture, and Ph.D. Program Coordinator.

She can be contacted at Edited by Robert Littlefield, Ph.D.

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