Compassionate Atlanta, a non-profit organization that seeks to raise awareness about the benefits of compassionate action in the Greater Atlanta area, recently sponsored an engaging workshop on empathetic communication at Kavarna coffee house in Decatur, Georgia. Dialogue Across Differences was described as an “introductory, experiential workshop…that will show you how to tap into expanding compassion as you confront your own biases and others’, improve your listening skills, and ask powerful questions to help create courageous conversations.” McKenzie Wren of Culture on Purpose and Dr. Folami Prescott-Adams of HTI Catalysts, two well-known and highly respected conflict resolution facilitators, led the participants on a journey to uncover the skills and tools needed to create conversations that lead to improved understanding, empathy, and inclusion.
During group introductions, I felt a connection with others who shared my passion for relational dialogue, but who struggle when conversations cease due to irreconcilable differences. Our group empathized when a participant shared their regret of unfriending a colleague on Facebook after a fruitful political conversation turned sour. We acknowledged a weakness of social media when reading words on screens, usually, do not portray their accurate meanings. As a result, we are one type-written word away from allowing a temporary misunderstanding to permanently end a valued relationship. Often our verbal disagreements turn into contentious debates with dire consequences. We agreed that this way of being does not serve our highest potential because change can only occur through respectful open dialogue across differences.
How do we communicate across differences and keep our need for self-respect?
The following are major communication tools:
- Our biases influence our opinions. To compassionately disagree, understand that a person’s opinion is unique as their fingerprints. Our specific background, lifestyle, and culture influence and color the pictures of what our ‘right’ looks like and inform our bias. A person’s close proximity to an issue impacts their judgment. It is challenging to fully understand a different point of view unless one has insight into that particular lifestyle. Therefore, before becoming frustrated in a heated exchange, visualize yourself in the other person’s shoes. Know your audience.
- Remain Openly Curious.Think of the disagreement as an opportunity to learn a different way of thinking. Ask for clarification. Take a moment to rephrase a response to clarify that your understanding is what the speaker intended. Often, disagreements are really misunderstandings in disguise. Lines of communication remain open, with a higher degree of success, when the parties seek to gain understanding instead of being right and winning an argument. The order of communicative response: (1). Listen, (2), Understand, and (3). Respond.
- Accept non-closure.Communication is subjective, not objective. Accepting non-closure means to assent that not every question has an answer that will coincide with your belief system or bias. At this moment, no meaningful solution, for you, fits the variables involved in the conflict. In math, we call this non-answer the null set. In real life, it is called-‘It is what it is’. At times, the space of the differences is too great for an agreement to ever coexist, even with adequate facts presented. At this junction, there are two options: (1). Agree to disagree and remain civil, (2) Cease communication. Accept non-closure without judgment or blame. Change takes time.
Accepting non-closure is my most revered tool because it helps me come to terms with an uncomfortable reality-some ideas may never make sense to me. Therefore, I strive to not take the opinions of others personal. Perhaps an ‘aha’ moment may happen now, tomorrow, or possibly never. Be patient with the process. Instead of dwelling in frustration, a productive alternative is to accept what cannot be controlled, move on, and live life.
At the conclusion, each participant shared one word that summed up their experience. A few of the words were: Namaste. Love. Growth. Community. Empathy. My favorite is community.
Written by Tuwanda Muhammad