How do we talk with people?

Whether it’s about global warming or sexual assault, there are times we want to talk to people about it. Sometimes it’s because we think they’re part of the problem. How can we talk to people, fight for what we believe in? The question is, do you fight to punish, or do you fight to change things? As Gandhi said, “I for one have found that we’re all such sinners it’s best if punishment is left up to God.”

So how do we talk about anything, not to satisfy our need to “win the argument,” but to change things?

14 responses to “How do we talk with people?

  1. The most important thing I have learned from attending a seminar on something like this is the dictum “Don’t tell them everything you know. They don’t want to hear it. Tell them what they need to know to decide what they need to decide now”.

    And, I know, when you know something, especially when it’s heavy, you are busting to tell somebody and share, and that’s a fault I particularly have. But don’t. It’s better.

    If they ask, and seem genuinely interested, and have the time and effort to invest, that’s something else. But teach them. I even think pop questions and mini problem sets are appropriate.

  2. ask the right question, so the person you want to educate comes up with the correct answer instead of hearing you tell them what you think the right answer is.

    • Yes. Questions are more powerful than assertions.

      Unfortunately, assertions are more tempting–perhaps because they put us in the position of authority and so feed our egos. Very often, of course, there’s a symmetry in that, with both sides defending their self images as knowing, competent and wise in the ways of the world. That way lies escalation and a power struggle that will inevitably lead to stalemate.

      Noah avoided that road by placing concentration on his relationship with his friend instead, I note. Anyone else feel that that is a way that has promise, at least in some situations? And has anyone tried that? What were the outcomes?

      [Response: I feel that way has promise. Great promise. That’s why I put his talk on this blog.]

      • Can you type out how that Noah conversation might start on climate change? For my right question approach, it’s pretty simple, decide what might be important to the person you are talking, then something like:
        you know, at my age I don’t feel like I really need to worry about climate change that much, but I worry about the situation for my kids and grandkids, are you worried about your kids and grandkids?
        Or, I don’t know how bad things are going to get, but the storms and king tides have really been pushing the beaches and driftwood towards my place at the beach. Have you noticed that when you have been out at the coast? What do you make of that? It seems like something has changed. I never saw the ocean come that far up the beach before. Should we be worried?

      • again, I am lost with the Noah conversation about relationship that you suggest. Can you type out how that would start?

  3. sbm, those sound like really good questions to me. I’ve also learned (over years, and with difficulty) that really listening to the answers is imperative, too. Unfortunately, sometimes it is quite challenging to do. But then, if all this were easy…

    • I think a protracted discussion after asking the right question may just descend into the usual polemics. I think form and ask the right question, then shrug and be ready to say: boy, I don’t know. I am starting to worry. and then change the topic. The right question is like the seed sown that sometimes falls on fertile soil, sometimes it falls on rocky soil, yet it may sprout nonetheless. I think most of us try to sow our seed on fertile soil and that makes sense. A lot of effort on the rocky soil may not be in order.

      • Sure, it makes sense to be strategic. In something as complex as human belief, one size will never fit all. And we all know that there is just no point with some people (my brother-in-law the petroleum geologist, for example, who in addition to his occupational bias has a complete and utter lack of humility of any sort, especially intellectual, and a fondness for conspiracy theories, the more absurd the better.)

        Your point about planting a seed and walking away is also well-taken. One of the things that does is allow people to change in private, thereby saving face (or to put it more pleasantly, preserving dignity.) Again, it short-circuits the conflict cycle (a technical term for the escalation we so often see.)

        On the other hand, some folks may be open to an honest discussion, especially if they feel they are actually being heard. We just have to make the best judgment we can in each particular situation, IMO.

  4. “again, I am lost with the Noah conversation about relationship that you suggest. Can you type out how that would start?”

    In the Noah case, the relationship preexisted, so it could function in a foundational way. If we are dealing with strangers, there’s only human basics there. It may be possible to build on basics–you’ve already effectively created an entry point there with a question such as “I worry about the situation for my kids and grandkids, are you worried about your kids and grandkids?” You’re framing things in terms of a shared value. It may work–and many times your follow up may be the perfect approach.

    On the other hand, your interlocutor may say something which seems to invite a response in some way. It could be “Yes, I’m afraid that the world we are leaving them is much worse than the one we inherited in so many ways.” Then you can explore what that means to him or her, and share what that means to you.

    Or it could be “Really? I thought all that stuff was a scam. Isn’t it all just natural cycles?” Then you make a judgment. Was that said in a spirit of innocent surprise and actual questioning, or was it coming from a place of entrenched denial? If the first, then I would say it may be worth exploring a bit, especially if you’ve got a little time to spend anyway. There are still quite a few folks, I think, who haven’t focused on the issue much, and have only a few casual talking points rattling around their heads. If that’s true, then you have the opportunity to plant a few more seeds, if you can keep it unthreatening and maintain a posture of equality and commonality.

    Since you ask for specifics, if I decided it was worth a shot I might say something like, “Well, I know some folks think so, and you definitely hear that said. But there’s some really interesting science that I think people don’t hear about so much, and I find it pretty compelling. So I do worry–quite a bit, actually.”

    Then I’d try to follow that response up with a question–maybe something about the ‘natural cycles’ bit. Maybe: “I’d probably feel better if I thought it was natural. What did you hear about that?” And listen.

  5. I think that’s a good discussion framework and I applaud and encourage anyone who can commit to it. I am way past that point now and have zero patience or respect for anyone who is clinging to the idea that global warming, fossil fuels, etc. are not an existential disaster. I think the hour is very late to do anything meaningful about the situation and I just don’t have much patience for anyone who does not understand how we got here and what we needed to do ten years ago to change direction. I am not proud or happy about my lack of patience and understanding with folks who are having trouble reading the handwriting on the wall, I am enraged by the collective difficulty with this critical bit of pretty simple science. The short right question and shrug is all I have left at this point. I stop pushing and in a year or two when folks come late to the realization that we are in trouble, then I see what my reservoir of “good will” is at that moment and decide how to respond. Right now, the reservoir is pretty low. My anger towards folks who have actively worked to misrepresent the science is high. My disdain for the folks who have failed to process basic science is also pretty high, so it’s best that I just stay with the question and shrug for now. For folks who suddenly understand now and come to me and say, uh-oh, now I get it, I think we are going to sell the Hummer and get a nice hybrid SUV, I just say “good idea” and move on. The level of change required is not grasped and my anger and disdain remain at a pretty high level. I am working on resiliency issues in my realm, planting grapes, kiwis, berries etc. trying to make smart choices about changes in my realm that may provide some buffering, but I no longer hold out much hope that our species is capable of the actions required. Case in point: can we get Donald Trump and Kim Jung Il to coordinate on global warming issues?

    • Sadly, those feelings and thoughts make a lot of sense. The situation is not good, and it was a catastrophe that this country allowed itself to be manipulated into the power of a sociopathic ignoramus puppet.

      I’m sure you are doing your best, and I’m trying to do the same. It’s pretty clear that we’re going to see some of Dylan’s “hard rain”–hopefully not enough to wash us all away completely. There’s good evidence that we have time to make some difference. So we keep trying as we can.

  6. One more comment about this–and this one is more general.

    In difficult conversations, we all have a tendency to spend most of our time on our next response. We may monitor what our interlocutor is saying enough to keep track, but most of our effort typically goes into crafting our response.

    The problem with this is that it very often leads us to respond, not to what the other has actually said, but to what we expected them to say. And the effect is even more insidious in terms of what we think they *meant* by what they said. It also feeds into our emotional brains, not our rational ones, since we are spending little or no energy on checking our ‘storyline’ about the conversation.

    A really, really useful strategy for doing better is to intentionally mirror what the other is saying to us. The classical way of doing this is highly literal:

    Joe: I think you’re a dirty Socialist out to destroy the world through this horrible global warming scam.

    Jane: So, I heard you say that you think I’m a dirty Socialist out to destroy the world through this horrible global warming scam. Did I get that right?

    The advantage of this is that it avoids interpreting the other’s words, which has pitfalls of its own. But sometimes the very literalness can come across as passive aggressive, or at least creepily strange, in which case one might dare a little interpretation:

    Well, no one’s ever called me a Socialist before. But I guess you’re saying that global warming is some sort of plot intended to bring down capitalism, and that it’s being put forward through some sort of group of Socialists. Do I have that right?

    Either way, there are 2 principal advantages. One is that you actually find out what the other thinks. The second is that if you are really listening for comprehension, you are invoking your rational brain and shutting out your ‘storyline’ about what is happening. It is amazingly more easy, then, to respond calmly, avoiding emotional escalation and that dreaded conflict cycle I mentioned above. It’s really quite startling to experience, actually.

    The trick is to remember to do the mirroring *before* you indulge in the emotional reaction. It’s really hard: for one thing, the brain stem is wired to respond very quickly, so the emotions will tend to ‘get there first,’ even though they may be expressed in slower verbal behaviors. And–let’s be honest–it’s just really tempting to go with righteous anger. It feels good. So mirroring is not easy to initiate in the real world, quite often. You need to firmly decide to try it, and have a strong intention to do so, to jump in with it in the moment.

    But it does work, as they say, ‘a treat’–if you can make yourself try it. In theory, it should be easier in print than live, but print interactions have their own problems that countervail the theoretical emotional damping effect.

  7. The Reality Project is live today with their annual 24-telethon, interviewing folks around the world. Al Gore and Jonathan Scott (of the “Property Brothers”) are hosting. It runs til 6 PM EST today.

    They pose 3 questions:

    1) Must we change?
    2) Can we change?
    3) Will we change?