This holiday season as families gather, the list of potentially heated conversation topics is long. Some might choose to ignore these issues altogether in the name of keeping the peace.
For those looking for productive conversation, public speaker and author David Campt has some practical suggestions. He directs The Dialogue Company, which focuses on increasing inclusion through transformative dialogue. He recently shared his tips for a happy holiday with WFDD's David Ford.
On initiating dialogue on potentially heated topics:
A critical factor is to cultivate a relaxation ritual beforehand. So, whether it's deep breathing, or progressive body relaxation, or closing your mind and imagining your favorite place, real or imaginary, what you want to do is to do something to actively relax yourself when you know you're about to have a tense conversation.
One thing that's useful to do actually is to do a compassion booster with the person, especially if it's a family member — you've had positive moments with them, you've seen them cry. Sometimes even thinking of them crying is useful or thinking of a positive moment you've had with them or thinking of an aspiration they have is useful thing to open your heart up, as well as relaxing. And those both are important to try to have a good conversation.
How to stay on topic:
A critical thing is to try to focus the conversation on people's experiences, not just their opinion. They tell you an opinion, you don't like their opinion, maybe give them a little more room for the opinion, but what you want to do is to shift to a 'why' question to a tell me what happened to you that make you think like that. Why do you think that, based on your experience, not based on some rationale, but based on something that happened to them. Tell me about some time that happened to you, that confirmed to you that you should see it that way. Conversations about experiences are more connecting than conversations just about opinions.
But the most important thing is if you're trying to help somebody see a problem, what you want to do is to try to figure out a way to talk about yourself as connected to that problem. If you're trying to help them see that there's a problem called racism, what you want to do is to be able to talk about how sometimes you find yourself occasionally having racist thoughts you're not proud of. You want to put yourself in the problem, so, it's a collective examination of a condition, not an accusation that's critical to moving hearts and minds.
On remaining humble:
Part of the reason why persuasive conversations can be so ineffective is because we come at people with a kind of condescending, superior attitude. There's this problem, and you're a part of it, as opposed to there's a problem in the world, and we can all be a part of it — sometimes I am — and trying to invite people to see that maybe they are sometimes. And I think that humility, and that vulnerability is critical.
And it's well known among people who study conflict resolution and persuasion that those types of strategies to focus on your connection before you challenge people is important. I call it the ABC rule: agreement before challenging. You want to make sure you do that and not just go right at how they're wrong. You want to give them a sense you think they're right about something before you try to invite new thinking.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.