After printing the first installment of a story on gun control last week, Inland 360 received this message on Facebook:
It’s a great starting point for a conversation about how we talk about tough issues.
We’re living in a day and age where public discourse has deteriorated to name calling, shouting matches and baseless accusations, on both sides of the political divide. People are passionate, and that matters, but when we can’t channel those passions into civil conversations, doors slam shut — and that’s no good for democracy.
Anna Plemons of Pullman faced difficult conversations when she and her husband decided to adopt internationally, becoming a multiracial family. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion about her personal business, which became very public because her child didn’t look like her. She had to develop new ways to talk about the things that mattered most to her. Her interest led to a doctorate in rhetoric and composition at Washington State University, where she is now a faculty member.
At a nonpartisan workshop Monday, May 14, in Moscow, Plemons will explore concrete strategies for choosing when and how to engage with friends, neighbors, co-workers and others in ways that are respectful, productive and less emotionally taxing.
“There’s been a rise in divisiveness in public discourse. I think most of us feel we’re not in productive conversations,” said Plemons, who is motivated to share what she’s learned because she’s seen amazing changes in perspective. The caveat is, they don’t happen overnight.
“There’s a thousand ways to engage in this work” said Plemons, who went on to name a few she’ll explore further at the workshop sponsored by Palouse ProActive.
Before engaging, read the situation.
When something trips your switch, stop, take a breath and consider if a conversation is worth your time and energy.
“If a person isn’t easily offended or tired, maybe they do want to engage every person all the time. For me, I ask, is this a person I have a long-term relationship with? Does this conversation need to happen for us to work or live productively together?”
Use stories to illustrate your point.
Unpack and share the stories that will show people why you’re passionate about an issue. Angry shouting on Facebook doesn’t root back to anything, Plemons said.
She teaches creative nonfiction writing workshops at a maximum-security prison in California. “I tell the prisoners, ‘I’m not obligated to hear your opinion as someone who has broken the rules of society — but if you tell me a really compelling story, I’m going to have to think about that.’”
Reframe the words you use for difficult conversations.
War is a common metaphor for persuasive conversations, she points out. We speak in terms like, “defend your point” and “I shot down his arguments.” There’s a winner and a loser. What if we used another metaphor instead, like dance, Plemons asked?
Or, just give up the need to “win,” she said.
Listening is an undervalued but critical part of productive conversations.
Give up the moral high ground.
If your argument stems from a belief that you occupy a superior moral position, it is not a productive starting point to talk to someone who disagrees with you. For more on this, Plemons recommends reading Martin Luther King’s “Loving Your Enemies” sermon.
Know the difference between a conversation and an intervention.
An intervention is when you feel drawn to intervene to defuse a situation in which someone is being bullied or hurt. Typically, it’s not a time when you’d invite further conversation.
Give yourself permission to not engage. Instead, consider the long game.
If you’re going to engage, do you think there will be a benefit to someone, somewhere? Consider how much time you have. Give yourself permission not to solve the problem in one sitting. Figure out if is there a long road and, if so, how you can think of this conversation as one of many, Plemons advised.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Discussing differences of opinion with facilitator Anna Plemons
WHEN: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, May 14
WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse, 420 E. Second St., Moscow
OF NOTE: The nonpartisan workshop will explore will explore concrete strategies for choosing when and how to engage in conversations in ways that are respectful, productive, and less emotionally-taxing.