Five ways to have difficult conversations without being an asshole

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about my not liking to share slides after a presentation. If you didn’t see the thread, all you need to know is that from my experience speaking at conferences, I broadly feel uncomfortable sharing my slides afterwards without context in case my points are misinterpreted.

A gentleman, who I am sure was entirely well meaning in his response so I am not sharing the Tweet directly and encourage you not to go looking for it, replied with this.

I read this Tweet and immediately felt the adrenal swell of raging irritation. I was not annoyed that he was disagreeing with my points, many others did and I welcome respectful discourse (at least, I try to). I mean, I don’t go in to persistently oversharing my shit on the internet blind to the reality that many people won’t agree with my perception and thoughts on a topic. This article in particular will probably be pretty polarising. Lots of p’s there. Peppa Pig. P. P. p.

Anyway.

What annoyed me, in my waters as my mum would say (whatever that means), is that he thought he was in a position to decide I was “right” and conversely “wrong” about my own opinion, on my own perception, of my own experiences. And then thought it appropriate to point out my backwards thinking. As if I were suggesting something absolutely bonkers like, oh, I don’t know, leaving the European Union.

I replied immediately.

My response was basically asshole meets asshole. The eye roll emoji, the passive aggressive closing line, the you don’t know me teenage angst about my agency. I could have done better. I could have done worse, but I could have done better.

It’s worth mentioning here as others will and it’s a salient point. This could well be labelled mansplaining. The response may have come from a conscious or unconscious bias that because of my gender he is automatically in a position of greater knowledge and understanding. Likewise, my immediate irritation was likely a result of this kind of response having happened to me more times than I can be arsed to count. However, what typically happens when we call out mansplaining is a debate on the ultimately subjective nuance of a strangers inner psyche at a certain time. Whilst I am not choosing to ignore the perpetual, tedious reality of men patronising women, in this article I will focus solely on a broader topic of improving broken discourse, because that is something we can all learn from.

I believe, increasingly passionately, that the need for better debate is absolutely vital.

In politics, in business, in friendships, in relationships. Apart from those who were fortunate enough to join a debate team (not me, my school was so rough the debate stemmed to “who will get the pot past the dogs today?”), we are not taught how to do this. We are not taught about what kinds of language will spark irritation, how someone’s perceptions are fundamentally different to your own and how to share feedback without crushing someone’s soul. As a result, we’re all verbally banging in to each other like bumble bees in a matchbox.

I can no longer log on to Twitter without someone calling some else a biggot, or peers being called out for the nuance of language they wrote in 2009 or close friends having posturing debates about who is the most feminist and, whether this kind of ousting is true or not, I can’t help but feel this emotionally driven derision is not really getting us anywhere.

I believe, so deeply, like as deeply as the belief I held in my youth that I would marry Ronan Keating (for the Americans, basically a total Irish dreamboat). We need to incorporate more reason, more listening, more rationale and more empathy in to our discourse when we disagree; to prevent us ostracising the opposition, devolving debates in to personal attacks and pinning someone down without allowing for context, change or growth.

The rest of this article contains five suggestions of how to do this; some of which are from my training, some from my wasted philosophy degree, some are from more recent reading and others are from my own, subjective, judgement and experience.

1. Stop telling people they are right or wrong

To my dear Twitter friend, no two brains are the same.

“The structure of people’s brains is very individual. The combination of genetic and non-genetic influences clearly affects not only the functioning of the brain, but also its anatomy.”

My experiences have hardwired to inform my unique, individual perceptions. Every experience in my life, every interaction, every fear, every moment of joy, have all played their part in creating my own current ideas, perceptions, biases and beliefs. These perceptions are highly unlikely to be exactly the same as yours, unless, of course, you are the raging badass that was awarded a certificate for spending six years as an active member of a recorder ensemble.

Six. Years.

What this means, sick ass baroque recorder arrangements aside, is that nobody has any legitimate authority to tell me whether my perceptions are right, in comparison to theirs. When someone is sharing an opinion or a thought derived from their experience, it should be treated as such. Nobody has the authority to tell you that your opinions are right or wrong.

All we can validly say is that they are different.

We are not discussing hard facts here, I was not laying out the laws of physics or presenting a statistical analysis. My preposition was “I have something to share and here are my specific reasons for my opinion”.

Pick holes in my argument, of course, leaving it looking like a delicious slab of Jarslberg, but don’t just blanket write it off as wrong. At best that’s lazy and unhelpful and at worst it’s arrogant and short sighed. A more productive response might have been “thank you for sharing your opinion. My perspective is X because Y”. Or “I believe that X argument could be better perceived as Y”.

For example, “thank you for sharing your perspective that spending six years in a recorder ensemble is a good idea, I believe that maybe you had cooler ways to spend your teen years such as being in an all female post punk rock band called Kitten Killz”.

What this does is facilitates respectful discourse. It creates a space for me to consider an alternative interpretation, gives me room to provide a rebuttal, makes me feel respected and heard regardless of an opposing position. I am also probably more likely to carefully consider that opposing position if I am not immediately dismissed and put in to a threat state. These may well just be nuanced semantic differences, but they make a huge impact in terms of creating a discourse where everybody is heard, understood and respected, which in turn creates compromise and finding middle ground much more achievable.

Someone’s argument or belief can be left in the dirt, but don’t leave them there with it.

2. Ensure you have all the context, before dishing out judgements

Another wonderful example of someone *cough*a man*cough* being an asshole to me on the internet is when I first launched my book, “The Future is Freelance”. Denis, whose identity I haven’t hidden here because this was months ago so who cares, had some thoughts for me.

Wow Denis. Wow. Maybe we could have a conversation about how you could improve your freelancer selection and briefing process? I would also very much welcome all your thoughts on my book once you have maybe even skimmed the first page.

This is an extreme example, though providing a bold opinion before getting context is persistent, prevalent and pretty damn terrifying.

As a general rule, before pointing out a failing or sharing a disagreement, we should first try to access to all the relevant context that may have informed a choice or decision. Without context, or blind ignoring it, we are not engaging in a reasoned, balanced debate. We are merely spouting unformed ideas to get nice bump to the ego through a desire to be right. That’s a valid, legitimate, thing to want to do, but we can all try to improve our habits for all around us.

This may be a maverick notion, but how about, when we see someone on the internet, or if we’re feeling particularly bold, in real life say something that makes our blood curdle, rather than immediately respond with a comment about how sexist/racist/wrong/immoral that person is, we ask them why. The response becomes “This seems completely wrong to me because X, why is this your opinion?” rather than “YOU DISGUST ME OR SOMETHING SIMILAR”.

God wouldn’t that be better? Surely it’s not just me that finds relentless soundbites of derision tiresome.

3. Try some empathy, first

When I was about 12, I got bullied by a group of young teenagers in a McDonalds car park, they called me fat and pushed me in to the curb. I took my chubby teary moon face to my Dad who was sitting in the car in “grill parking” (remember that?!) and told him exactly where these teenage boys were; expecting him to fly off the handle, go wild with rage and go over to those boys and, well, absolutely bloody kick off. What he did shocked me and has stayed with me ever since. He said to me “Kirsty, they’re teenage lads, we don’t know what kind of homes they have, they probably didn’t even think twice about it, so there’s no use me going over there and causing a ruck”. Instead, he rolled down his window and my built-like-a-brick-shit-house and not-unfamiliar-to-a-pub-fight father beckoned them over. I became tense with trepidation and excitement at the justice that was about to be served. Then, I gawped in awe as I watched from the passenger seat my dad ask them why they did it, are you bored lads? I’ve got a football in the garage if you want a kick about? Do you hang round here all day? There’s a park there you know? Are you local? Do you know Nigel who runs the football club?

My Dad did not see these boys as the single faceted bullies who were objectively twats to his darling little sweet cherub daughter (that’s me guys!), he saw them as something else, the bored teenagers that he probably once was. He did not add anger on to anger, he used empathy to try and fundamentally change their perceptions. He surprised them, as he surprised me, with the power of a cool head and understanding.

Really beautifully, had my mother witnessed the event it would have gone down differently, because hell heath no fury than my mum defending her spawn. Much like the time my brother got hit (again, outside a McDonalds), she donned all black to, in her words “look threatening”, and walked around the centre of town shouting at anyone who would listen until she found the perpetrators and performed a civil arrest, dragging them to the police station by their shirt collars. Seriously.

Let’s get Trump to be mean to me, she’ll drag him to the Whitehouse by his collar and impeach him herself.

Next time you see someone being a raging asshat, take a beat to try and put yourself in their shoes for second. This may be completely superfluous and we may remain in the same position of “nope, no empathy here!”, but it can do no harm to try.

We are not letting people off, we are not giving people an easy ride or not calling out the bullshit like we should. We are making a considered effort to understand motivations, to empathise, in order to influence actual change.

To give you a real life example, you may remember the time I was the only woman at an event. I was getting Tweets of “Oh my god that is bullshit! Call them out! Don’t stand for it! Boycott the event! Pickett the streets! Burn the buildings! Take their first born! I am exaggerating but you get the idea!”. What people did not know is that the first thing I did was email the organisers and ask them why I was the only woman. Not defensively, not in conflict, but inquisitively. Consequently, they gave me an open, honest answer I would have otherwise struggled to get. Consequently, I focused on trying to do anything I can, even in a small way, to solve that problem, rather than just banging on about how very less than ideal it is. Banging the drum has value, of course, but not when it’s ALL we do. Banging drums are great, but a full symphony is better. Kinda like Stomp vs La Boheme.

4. Silence is, er, golden

I am a natural communicator. I think language and listening is perhaps my main skill in life, alongside strong mental arithmetic to justify takeaway. Though recently, through my aforementioned coaching course, I have really learnt the value in silence. Once an unusual phenomenon that would result in my blurting something, anything, out, (WHO WANTS PIZZA?!) I now sit in it, languishing in it’s calming, contemplative power.

In a face to face situation, try to avoid the temptation of interrupting when someone is being awful to you. Let people speak, let them have at it, let them go and go and go if you have to. You may want to cut in to provide a rebuttal, but interrupting makes people even more defensive and is more likely to escalate the conversation. Once the person has finished, thank them. Thank them for their opinion. It will make you look like goddam Mr Miyagi, which we can all agree is something to aim for. Then, allow yourself some time to breath, process some thoughts, regulate your emotion and provide a clear, considered response. I talk a lot about regulating high intensity emotions in my confidence coaching, email me if you want some more tips, I could bang on about this for days.

5. Positive questions

I run an agency, so naturally, I am the primary point of escalation when things go wrong. As a result, I have spent a lot of time in my career having conversations about what we did wrong, what they didn’t like, why we are disappointed. It’s an unavoidable occupational hazard, however recently, I fundamentally changed how we engage in this discourse. I cannot change how people communicate to me, but I can influence and structure more positive conversations.

For example, I always ask in the first instance “what did you like?”. This immediately puts our minds in a more positive frame of mind to start the discussion. Then, instead of “what didn’t you like?” I instead ask “where can we improve? What do we need to develop? Where can we be better?”. The difference in these questions, though nuanced, is significant. It keeps us focused on positive progress, whilst creating a space for critical feedback. The brain is hardwired to focus on the negative so we have to actively strive for more positive communication. Asking positive conversations of others, and ourselves, in discourse is one of the most powerful ways I have learned to help someone find solutions.

In summary, next time you find yourself in a situation where you want to tell someone how completely, utterly, incomprehensibly wrong they are:

  1. Define whether they are simply sharing their perspective on a situation and, given this, are you an authority on whether this is right? Or do you just want to share an altogether still valid, all be it different, perception to an altogether still valid perception?
  2. Make sure you have all the pertinent details to make sure nobody comes out looking daft
  3. Try to understand why someone has that perspective and see if you can empathise
  4. Give yourself, and others, some space to formulate your thoughts coherently
  5. Keep a conversation growth centic, focusing on improvement and developmet, rather than “wrongness”
  6. Remember none of this is defined and nobody is perfect but more reason, more understanding, more middle ground can only be a good thing
  7. Absolutely do not join a recorder ensemble or go to a McDonalds because that shit goes down

I hope this helps. Thank you.

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