Here we are again, mourning the loss of people killed and facing a very difficult and complex problem of what to do about it. One side says gun control. Another says no way. One side says immigration reform. The other side has a message of unity. It’s a lot of us vs. them. I’m often discouraged and overwhelmed by what seems like insurmountable differences of people who actually want the same thing— a country where people enjoy freedom and relative safety for themselves and their families.
I’ve been reading the book, Difficult Conversations, How to discuss what matters most, a book written by people of the Harvard Negotiation Project — a research project that develops and disseminates improved methods of dealing with conflict. Just last night I came upon a passage that gives me hope. It’s kind of long, but I think it’s really good.
Remember: You Can’t Change Other People
In many situations, our purpose in initiating a conversation is to get the other person to change. There’s nothing wrong with hoping for change. The urge to change others is universal. We want them to be more living, to show more appreciation for our hard work, to accept our career choice or our sexual orientation. To believe in our God or our views on important issues of the day.
The problem is, we can’t make these things happen. We can’t change someone else’s mind or force them to change their behavior. If we could, many difficult conversations would simply vanish. We’d say, “Here are the reasons you should love me more,” and they’d say, “Now that I know those reasons, I do.”
But we know things don’t work that way. Changes in attitudes and behavior rarely come about because of arguments, facts, and attempts to persuade. How often do you change your values and beliefs – or whom you love or what you want in life – based on something someone tells you? And how likely are you to do so when the person who is trying to change you doesn’t seem fully aware of the reasons you see things differently in the first place?
We can have an influence, but here we need to be especially careful. The paradox is that trying to change someone rarely results in change. On the other hand, engaging someone in a conversation where mutual learning is the goal often results in change. Why? Because when we set out to try to change someone, we are more likely to argue with and attack their story and less likely to listen. This approach increases the likelihood that they will feel defensive rather than open to learning something new. They are more likely to change if they think we understand them and if they feel heard and respected. They are more likely to change if the feel free not to.
What this means is that posting a rant or meme on facebook isn’t going to bring two sides together. Yelling at the other side… not the answer. If we want to see something shift in these bi-partisan issues, each of us can make efforts to understand, hear, and respect the other side.
Stone, Douglas, Patton, Bruce and Heen, Sheila. Difficult Conversations, How to discuss what matters most; Penguin Books, 2000