This is challenging. How can we have respectful, open conversations on topics where people are deeply divided, or hold radically differing viewpoints from each other?
The easiest answer is to say we can’t and hang out with people who agree with us. It’s more comfortable, but it feels very unhealthy to me.
Sometimes I don’t want to hear what someone else thinks, especially if I strongly disagree with it and believe I know better than them. At times I also find it very hard to hear someone else’s opinion that is very different from mine if I care about them a lot. I want us to be aligned. However, I find that if I engage fully in a conversation I always come out of it having learnt something valuable.
These conversations are all the harder when you’re influencing other people. What do you share? What do you keep to yourself? To what extent do you express your personal opinion? To what extent do you neutralise everything you say so no one can take offence?
I’ve wrestled with these questions recently. As an individual it feels immoral to betray the knowledge I’ve gained, often through extensive research, by staying completely neutral. On the other hand, as a leader I want to create a space where people with different viewpoints can listen and learn from each other.
How can I share a lifetime of knowledge and expertise in my specialist area in a way that educates and at the same time allows participants to do their own research, form their own opinions and make their own decisions?
When the topics are big and personal (e.g. health and well-being, money, the future) the answers aren’t obvious. It’s hard to watch people making decisions they may regret and yet it’s not always right to intervene.
It’s all the more challenging when it comes to talking about global issues like covid, vaccine policy, climate change or the future of the economy. The divisions are so strong and emotional that rational conversation seems barely possible.
In my business we held a team meeting today to discuss how we can approach this. I’d like to share with you what we came up with.
- We are educators, first and foremost, so we are creating an environment where people can learn.
- We want to create a space where people with a diversity of perspectives feel safe in expressing their views and listening to others with respect and open-mindedness, so everyone can benefit.
- As a leader and teacher, my primary role is to help people take responsibility for making their own decisions with as much wisdom as possible.
- In areas where I’m a secondary researcher, which means I learn from other experts who research primary source documents, I will refer people to trusted primary researchers to gain more knowledge rather than teaching/sharing it myself.
- Where it’s necessary for me to present what I’ve learnt from other primary researchers, I’ll make it clear where my knowledge has come from and refer people to those sources.
- Where I’m a primary researcher (i.e. in my own area of expertise), my role is to invite people to have an experience that may be new to them. It is their choice whether they accept my invitation.
- If I’m invited to express my personal opinions on a controversial topic, or I feel it’s a useful contribution, I will make it quite clear that it’s personal opinion, and where possible, I’ll explain why I formed that opinion.
- Love is more important than being right (which I first learned from Bruce Lipton).
- None of us really knows the answers. It helps to remember that.
I feel very strongly that we need to keep talking with each other. We must create spaces where we can share our differing opinions and listen carefully to views we may disagree with. We must also have the courage to share our personal perspective and not be bullied into silence because it’s not mainstream or may be risky.
Sometimes we need to handle the discomfort of being different. A healthy community is a diverse community which includes debate, discussion, disagreement and an underlying willingness to understand others.
It takes practice and lots of clumsy mistakes to be able to do this well.