Do you know that feeling when someone says something controversial and you don’t know what to answer? Your head is empty. Everything goes on alert. What can you do now? Should you change the subject quickly? Or maybe distract them? Should you just smile and nod? Or should you try to get into a discussion? Whenever I chose the latter, I felt overwhelmed. With my voice turning shaky not only I did not feel my strongest self for an objective conversation but I did not sound neutral or convincing either.
This has happened to me not only with controversial topics but also in work-related discussions with clients. For example, when I had to give my opinion right off the bat or when discussions in meetings went in the “wrong” direction and I felt I had to intervene.
But what is the best way to do this? In this first part of the article series, I will share a few tips that I have learned over the past years on how to prepare for a discussion. In a follow-up Part 2 article, I will share rhetorical distractions and how to react to them.
Breathe and be aware of your goal
The most important tip of all is to breathe in and out deeply! Breathe into your abdomen, this will lower your heart rate. You will calm down. Your brain will start thinking again and your voice will sound neither too high nor shaky.
Allow yourself these small moments, even if it may feel strange. For example, I also find it difficult to bear the silence and want to answer right away. But as soon as I feel angry or nervous it’s a better strategy to take this one moment to get control about my emotions and thoughts.
Another challenge when we react immediately to something said is often that we don’t have a goal for the discussion. This puts us in a hardened position. We don’t know what we want from the conversation. Do we even want to have a discussion? And if so, for what purpose? For example, should it be about informing another person about a specific topic, convincing them, or making it clear that one has a different opinion and we start talking about disagreements? Knowing your goals helps you to be better prepared for a discussion.
If you go to a conversation hoping that someone will give up their position completely - that is a very high expectation. Being aware of this makes it all the more important to adopt a constructive attitude yourself.
When we are outside our own bubble, we often immediately consider someone else’s opinion wrong, just because it does not match our own. Going into an argument like this can be difficult and nerve-racking. Therefore it is useful to adopt a constructive attitude yourself. This means that we ourselves should be prepared to learn something new - even if it is only understanding the person we are talking to.
This explicitly does not mean that you have to accept everything the other person says. There are also social issues, such as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, on which one should at least make a clear “Stop. I disagree. I don’t see it that way.”. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that the conversation stops at this point. But it’s on you to decide if you want to go into the discussion or not. If you decide to have the conversation you need to listen carefully.
Listen carefully and ask (open) questions
Active listening is the key to discussions. How else can we express criticism in a meaningful way if we have not understood the other person properly? Good ways to support active listening are open questions and paraphrasing. First of all, one tries to understand the other person’s position through concrete and open questions. This also helps to create an understanding of perspectives. Examples are: Why do you have this opinion? What do you think about xyz situation? Do you have personal experiences with xyz and would like to share?
Then you can start paraphrasing or repeating in your own words how you have understood something. The other person can correct it. The next step is to see if there is anything in common or if you have learned something new. This makes the other person feel valued and heard.
These first three steps enable you to have a more constructive discussion and get deeper into a productive conversation. Now, you can share your opinions, make a statement and bring up some counter-arguments respectfully.
Don’t forget psychological effects
There are two psychological effects that strongly influence our conversational style: the confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.
Confirmation bias describes the behaviour to select, weigh, and interpret information so that it supports our image and opinion. Cognitive dissonance is the behaviour of perceiving other opinions or information as a disturbing factor and wanting to correct them. In both cases, we want to convince the other person with our opinion and start with a flood of arguments.
Unfortunately, pure arguments rarely lead to success. Often opinions are more likely to solidify when people are facing too many counter-arguments.
The fact is, we don’t give up our opinions easily. Especially if we do not feel taken seriously or valued. Therefore it is even more important to treat each other with respect and hold a constructive attitude yourself.
If you want to read more on the topic I can recommend the following books: