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LIFE, UNEDITED: The Value of Difficult Conversations

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This election season, I’m making an effort to cut through the outrage and lean in to what matters to me, so that I might have some honest discussions with the people I love.

As we’re nearing the end of a long election season, perhaps you — like me — have found yourself struggling in some conversations with your friends and family. Maybe your cousin won’t stop sharing misinformation on Facebook, or your friend from college keeps responding to your well-intentioned musings with the same rage-filled diatribe.

It’s natural for these interactions to get heated, particularly if you feel passionately about your role in our current historical moment. And whatever your personal perspective, it’s hard to deny that our increasingly digital existence is adding fuel to the fire — wherever you turn on social media, people are being publicly shamed for sharing their opinions, and many of us feel entitled to grandstanding simply because we have an audience.

A millennial myself, I’m hesitant to entertain the notion that the Internet is ruining us. But I do have a sense that Twitter is not a great facilitator in the quest for common ground: The trolls are too innumerable, the temptation too great to ridicule and disengage, the character limit designed for sound bites and headlines. That’s another blog post, for another time.

These days, I’m more invested in what’s going on when I sit down with my friends and family — people I love and respect, whose thoughts and values have helped shape my own — and try to talk honestly about the issues that feel closest to my heart.

What I’m noticing is that a lot of us don’t seem primed to talk productively about what matters to us. This election season has been characterized by anger and ire — even with my limited historical eye, I suspect this is truer now than it’s ever been before. And, steeped as we are in headlines and sound bites, many of us haven’t done the critical thinking necessary to get to the heart of the matter for ourselves, much less communicate about it clearly with others.

More often than not, in these situations, I’ve been tempted to keep my mouth shut altogether. I was raised, as so many were, to believe that politics don’t make for “polite” conversation. It’s tempting, especially for the conflict-averse, to simply change the subject. But more recently, I’ve been finding myself torn between wanting to make nice and wanting to stand in my truth.

I used to be a university instructor, and so I know well that the path to learning is often paved with uncomfortable conversations: For a long time, I had them for a living. At the time, that work in the classroom felt weighty and urgent — the sensation that you’re molding the minds of the next generation will do that to you — but as I’ve left those days behind, the stakes seem to have grown higher still.

In my experience, it’s been incredibly valuable to have people in my life who see things differently than I do, whose varied life experiences have resulted in opinions that, perhaps, I don’t quite share. I find that kind of tension — when it’s productive — to be genuinely inspiring, and I think it’s vital that we make the difficult choice to not shy away from it. That’s where the learning happens.

If you’re feeling at all like I am — compelled to invest in these potentially difficult conversations with the people you value, but shaky on where to start — you might take a tip from Michael Nichols, PhD, and our piece on “Compassionate Communication”: “When you give other people the gift of your attention and empathy, it makes them feel understood and they become more open to hearing what’s on your mind.”

I’ve also found comfort recently in “Peace Through Personality.” Read in this context, I feel it’s helping me gain some valuable insights into the hearts and minds of people I care about, and reminding me that not everyone communicates the way that I do.

Above all, be sure you’re taking care of yourself. Jon Spayde’s “Lower Your Political Stress Level” offers a wealth of advice for surviving the political fervor while remaining calm, grounded, and well-informed.

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