Tips for Communicating in Contentious Times

How to Communicate Effectively in Polarized Political Environments. That was the timely topic for the March meeting of the Santa Barbara chapter of the Association of Women in Communications earlier this month. Co-author, Carolyn Jabs, had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion that included women representing three very different areas of expertise:  Dr. Anna Everett teaches media studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, California. Judy Newton-Guillermo is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist who worked as the ombudsman at UCSB and spent ten years as Vice President for Human Relations at a local bank. Kelly Scott is a deputy district attorney for Santa Barbara County, responsible for prosecuting homicides, domestic violence cases and other serious crimes.

All three women agreed that both professional and personal communication have become more challenging in the past year. More issues are perceived as political, and people are more likely to go into conversations with positions that are both harsher and more hardened than they would have been in the past.  Within that framework, all three women have found an approach to conflict that echoes many of the ideas we develop in Cooperative Wisdom. Here are some of their suggestions:

Be aware of your own flash points.  Everyone has hot button issues. When she coaches executives, Ms. Newton-Guillermo encourages her clients to recognize physical signals—stomach distress, elevated heart rate, light headedness—that indicate personal buttons are being pushed.  Becoming aware of these indicators opens up an opportunity to think about why the issue under discussion matters so deeply. In Cooperative Wisdom, we call this process deep discernment. What do we fear? What is at risk? Becoming clearer about why something truly matters allows people to make more conscious decisions about how they will respond. “You may not be able to control what others say,” observes Ms. Newton-Guillermo, “but your response is always a choice.”

Slow things down.  If someone says something that seems mistaken or wrong during a presentation or discussion, Dr. Everett recommends taking a moment to reflect. She points out that people are often so busy mentally preparing their own reply that they don’t really hear what’s been said. She recommends pausing—“silence can be very powerful”– and then asking for clarification by saying something like “I want to understand you correctly. I think you said…” Repetition deescalates tension and gives the other person an opportunity to modify or even soften their position.“People want to be heard,” observes Everett. “If you can give them that respect, they are more likely to listen when you say, ‘I’m not sure I agree and here’s why.’”

Appreciate diversity of opinions. Talking to like-minded people may strengthen confidence in your own position, but arguments—and solutions to problems—are strongest when they take multiple points of view into account. When attorneys in her office face complicated cases, Ms. Scott often urges them to seek out the colleagues with whom they disagree. Asking for input from people who see things differently can alert us to weaknesses in our plans, a crucial component of what we call inclusive integrity. These conversations are most likely to be productive if both parties start with humility and respect..  Scott often finds herself thinking about a quote she found recently:  “It’s hard to win over people you are insulting.”

Set limits. Effective communication may also mean insisting on respect from others. Everett points out that setting limits can be especially important in a group where aggressive or offensive comments may stifle other opinions. In Cooperative Wisdom, we highlight the need for creative courage, the determination to create cooperative settings in which everyone can thrive because no one tries to dominate. The goal, whenever possible, is to draw aggressors back into a cooperative posture in which they care about what matters to others as well as what matters to themselves.

Look for common values. “Even when people disagree, they usually have points in common,” observes Newton-Guillermo. “When things get heated, come back to that core mission.” In families, for example, it’s important to affirm feelings of love, tradition and connection even when people disagree about politics. In the workplace, it’s valuable to recognize that there may be more than one way to get to a goal. Scott, for example, says all of the attorneys in her office share a common commitment to public safety even when they disagree about the most effective way to achieve that goal. “You always want to appeal to what’s best in people,” concludes Newton-Guillermo.

From our point of view, what’s best is the urge to cooperate to create benefits that are genuinely mutual. Humans have been able to thrive because we spontaneously make cooperative arrangements—I’ll do this, you do that and both of us will be better off. In contentious times, the opportunities for conflict—and social breakdown—proliferate.  So it’s up to each of us to be more deliberate about communicating in a way that makes constructive interaction more likely.


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