You are at a dinner party with friends. The food is delicious, and the wine relaxing. The conversation turns to politics. One of the other guests brings up all the chaos in the Middle East. He rails against Israel, blaming the Jewish state for the continued instability in the region and, particularly, for the mass suffering of the Palestinian people. He wonders out loud why Israel doesn’t heed a popular suggestion to return Palestinian land back to pre-1967 levels.
You can feel your anger rising. You couldn’t disagree with the guest more. Doesn’t he realize that Israel has a right to that land and that they have been subject to almost continual violence and terrorism from Palestinians and other Middle Eastern countries for its entire existence?
Against your better judgment, you confront the guest. It doesn’t take long before the argument disintegrates into a shouting match. The other guests are embarrassed. The night ends poorly. You realize that you’ve made a fool of yourself and, of course, didn’t change your opponent’s opinion. That’s the last dinner party you’ll be invited to in a while!
Our beliefs, whether political, religious, or otherwise, tend to be emotional. We define ourselves by the sides we choose and can easily become defensive when those beliefs are questioned or refuted. Yet, we live in an extremely diverse society where different opinions are encouraged. It is highly likely that almost everyone we know and associate with has beliefs that are different than our own; sometimes substantially different.
Unfortunately, the emotional nature of beliefs tends to cause many heated and unhelpful conflicts as demonstrated in the scenario above. The purpose of this website is to share techniques for turning damaging and vitriolic arguments into something more constructive through the use of conversational shifts.
The first technique toward inducing a conversational shift is to identify, acknowledge, and appreciate the concerns of the other person, as well as your own. This may seem exceedingly obvious, but the mere act of creating an awareness of the main concerns helps put a constructive frame around the issue.
Let’s revisit the original example in this article. In this scenario, you heard someone disparaging the state of Israel. You immediately leapt to Israel’s defense, trigging a long-winded argument that swayed no one.
Instead, let’s imagine that you listened closely to what the person was saying before jumping on the attack. Suddenly, a new picture emerges. The other guest was worried about safety in the Middle East and the prolonged suffering of the Palestinian people. Can you agree that there is a lot of violence in the Middle East and that the Palestinian people endure poverty, violence, high unemployment and many other social handicaps that impair the function and order of their country?
You can now acknowledge that you and the other guest actually share many of the same concerns. You just place different priorities of importance on them. Can you see how this new perspective would have changed the way you entered the conversation and how you addressed the other person?
Identifying, acknowledging, and appreciating the concerns of the other person, as well as your own, is the first step toward building rapport. With rapport comes trust. With trust comes mutual sharing and understanding. Only in this open, trusting environment can conversational shifts take place.
When people avoid identifying their own concerns and the concerns that an opposing speaker may have, they shut off any possibility of understanding the other. Rather, they start throwing their arguments at each other, slinging random, sharp darts with no target in sight. It’s no surprise that these types of disagreements can quickly escalate and that the only result is anger and resentment.
Identifying concerns helps lay the groundwork for a constructive conversation. This may be a very small shift, but if everyone employed this technique, it could make a huge difference in how we speak to and understand each other. The Israel-Palestine conflict is a good example of two entrenched interests that rarely listen to and acknowledge the needs of the other. The result is that no progress is made, resentment turns to violence, and citizens of both countries continue to suffer.