I’ve never been one who has believed in the maxim, “Don’t talk about politics or religion.” I get it, of course, and I see (and practice) its usefulness often. What makes me bristle about the statement is that progress is not made, relationships are not deepened, and individuals do not become wiser by avoiding difficulty or difficult conversations. In fact, quite the opposite is true, and I want to make progress!
Our Conversation Meter tool both describes and helps assess the quality of conversations. At the lowest end of the spectrum is Pretense which is loosely described as “avoiding difficulty” and is likely a good description for the above-mentioned quote.
The next step up in quality on The Conversation Meter is Sincerity. Sincerity is a term that is oft cited as a positive quality and was chosen specifically because of this. In The Conversation Meter, Sincerity is used to describe speaking from a true and honest, often heartfelt, place. This all sounds great, right? Well, what differentiates Sincerity from higher quality conversations is that Sincerity comes from telling first rather than listening, and this is a crucial difference in increasing the effectiveness of conversation.
Accuracy, the next level on The Conversation Meter, starts with curiously asking questions of the person or people with whom you are talking. This is a pure, non-judgmental listening to learn from the other person and their perspective, and is a significant upgrade from the commonly-employed “listening and waiting to have your turn to speak.”
The highest level of conversation is called Authenticity, and describes a deep and meaningful intersection of your hopes and concerns with those of the person with whom you are speaking. Think of those conversations you’ve had, usually with someone you are close to, where time disappears and you are completely absorbed in the interaction. The connection is deep, the trust is strong, and the learning is profound. This is a conversation of Authentic quality.
When it comes to political conversations, or any difficult conversation really, I simply do my best to be in Accuracy. This is hard enough. One small thing can cause an emotional reaction and next thing I know I’ve slid back down to Sincerity, arguing my side, while the person I am speaking with is also in Sincerity, firmly entrenched and arguing their view. No one is listening or asking questions except for the purpose of trapping and attacking the other person in a vain attempt to win. It may be emotionally cathartic and even “fun” to some people, but it isn’t particularly useful in progressing anyone’s view or deepening understanding and relationships.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, I have been working hard and practicing being in Accuracy in as many conversations as I’m able. Sure, I’m a human being who loves to vent to the community of like-minded people by which I am surrounded. But, even more so, I want to learn, I want to grow, and I firmly believe that each of us has only part of the answer; it takes many diverse viewpoints and the tension that emerges at the intersection of these divergent viewpoints is where we truly reach the best answers.
The obvious question is, how? Early on I found myself reacting to posts by friends with different political views on Facebook. I instinctively went to Sincerity, like I think we all do, but found myself stuck in the same stressful and frustrating loop I’ve always descended into in these situations. So, I decided to practice being curious, asking questions, and doing everything I could to learn rather than react.
In fact, I decided that I would not share my opinion unless someone specifically asked for it. I would only ask questions and, the catch here, I would do my best to make sure those questions were backed by genuine curiosity. Too often, if you really pay attention, you will notice yourself asking questions with intent to trap the other person. This is not the “genuine curiosity” I am talking about. People see through this tactic incredibly quickly and it is nothing more than Sincerity in hiding.
These interactions have been “practice” for me and I have had varying degrees of success. Over time, I have reached out to multiple individuals with different political views from me, separately, to ask them questions about their views. At first, in each case, they were defensive in their responses. However, a strange thing started to happen. As I continued to simply ask questions, and genuinely sought to understand, I noticed their guard go down and more connecting, useful, and interesting conversations emerged. I often noticed them saying things like, “To be honest, I don’t even know if I’m right but…” and “I could be wrong…” and “I don’t actually agree with this view 100%, but here’s what is important to me…” I found myself having similar thoughts, realizing that they had some good points I had never considered, understanding why they believed what they did, and recognized we are all just human beings with different life stories desperately trying to make sense of a confusing world.
One of the primary things we’ve found with The Conversation Meter is that conversations tend to beget similar conversations. Someone coming at you from Sincerity will most often cause you to respond in kind, from Sincerity. What’s truly wonderful about this is that if you choose Accuracy, for example, and work hard to keep yourself speaking from that place regardless of how the other person responds, they will eventually find themselves speaking from Accuracy, too.
The most exciting thing about all of this is that it means we can choose the quality of the conversations we wish to have. Like building a muscle, creating high-quality conversations on a regular basis requires practice. Don’t get me wrong, it is challenging work, but it is worth it…for yourself, for your relationships, and for the world we live in. I know that I have certainly benefited and I hope that those I’ve been in conversation with have too.