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Having Difficult Conversations

by Tom Warshauer

February 27,2011

Our country is deep in discussions on discourse. President Obama, speaking eloquently at the memorial for those shot at Tucson, urged us to disagree without being disagreeable. While I appreciated the concept, I admit I had often wanted him to pursue his agenda more aggressively. Where was the winner-take-all attitude that many have wanted? Here he was again asking us, and that included me, to be civil, to think and act on higher ideals. His remarks challenged me to reexamine what was happening in my life and in my community regarding our conversations and conflicts. How do we disagree? What does civility mean? Is there something I can learn that can help me, personally and professionally?

Personally, I have lately been working with my four siblings to help our mom continue to live as independently as possible. I am told that my experience with my siblings is not unique – we often have different views of what needs to be done, and when. We may love each other, but years of presenting our best side to each other at family gatherings has hidden parts of who we have become and what we need. Struggling to juggle parental, family, and personal needs for each of us has led to a number of challenging and difficult conversations – and hurt feelings. Yet the outcome is that we now know each other better. While knowing may not mean liking each other better, through these conversations, I (and I hope they) have discovered that our relationships are more authentic and real, and I believe ultimately will be deeper. It has been hard, but it has been rewarding, as each challenge has brought us closer together as family and friends.

Professionally, the work I do in Neighborhood and Business Services for the City, helping neighbors create stronger communities and better places, has had its share of contentious issues. Neighbors often disagree on the need for sidewalks, on where cars should park, and on who should speak for their community. Despite conflict, I believe in our democracy. It follows that if I believe in an equal, democratic voice for everyone, I must believe that decisions are improved by listening to and understanding multiple perspectives from individuals. So is there a way to enhance our community’s dialogue surrounding school, library, and park closings and to address crime, transportation, and transit with reduced resources?

Despite growing up in a democracy, we spend little time developing the skills to manage it well. Much of our life is spent learning to win, not learning to listen. We aren’t on the ball field to chat: we are there to outperform, outmaneuver, and win. Many families teach that love and respect are found in agreement, that discord discounts love. We must learn that this isn’t true. We must learn a new paradigm for discussion, one that values difference and seeks understanding, not winning. We must allow for conflict and disagreement within the love of family, within the respect of work, and within the work of community building.

Over the last years, I have seen how work groups can mine participants’ intelligence to come to better decisions, rather than a consensus outcome people reluctantly accept. But this type of work is difficult. It requires patience, honesty, and listening. By learning others’ priorities and understanding where they see opportunity, we can make better decisions about the direction our community should take.

I believe what is needed is more than a toning down of the rhetoric of discord. We need to tune up our listening. The conversations we need are not about winning, nor are they about being pleasant. We must take the risk to disagree. But then we must ask questions to learn. These conversations make us more vulnerable, but we must go where we are not comfortable. We must be willing to invest in difficult conversations, where listening challenges our positions and causes us to think again, to think anew, and to reconsider.

Today we need solutions that solve more of our problems, and that seize more of the opportunities of our society. These solutions can only come from the learning that comes from listening.

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