Difficult Conversations:
The art and science of thinking together

Slides and Speaker Notes

our challenge

In part one, we're going to explore what makes difficult conversations difficult. In fact, that's the subject for the first two questions:


What makes difficult conversations difficult? And why is it often so hard to listen to people we disagree with? Let's take about five minutes to share our answers.

Having a constructive dialogue, especially around emotionally-charged issues, is hard—for many reasons. One is that most of us were never taught dialogue as a skill. More than likely, we were taught to argue, to debate, to get our point across, to “win.” That’s not communication. That’s a form of war!

If we want to communicate, the first step is to know what real communication looks like. What are its qualities, intentions, and attributes. One way to do that is to compare dialogue, with which collectively we’re not very familiar, with something we know pretty well: debate.

In a debate, or a typical argumentative conversation, we listen to decide if we agree or disagree, and if we disagree, to argue or rebut. Our entire focus is on reacting.

In dialogue, our intent is completely different. We're listening to learn, to understand, and to inquire, so that we can build on, rather than tear down, another’s thought or idea.

We’re going to do a short activity now that helps illustrate the distinction between dialogue and debate.

I’m going to play a conversation recorded by a journalist between two women, one pro-life, one pro-choice, who were facing each other across a literal divide during a demonstration outside a Planned Parenthood clinic.

The point of this exercise is NOT to have a debate about abortion. It is simply to reflect on the conversation in terms of the skills of dialogue vs. the skills of debate, and to ask yourself: What's happening in this conversation and why? This requires a skill we'll talk more about later, which is the ability stand back, detach, and observe what's happening without getting emotionally caught up.

NOTE: The audio is just under 7 minutes. I usually play about 4 minutes, just to give the flavor of the conversation.

I'm going to stop the recording now, because I think you get the idea of where this is headed. The two women end up parting ways, without either seeming to have any change of heart or mind. So let's talk about what we heard.

So with the difference between dialogue and debate in mind, what made this conversation difficult? And what, if anything, could have been done to make this a better conversation for both of them? 

Thank you, everyone, for sharing your insights. I'm now going to play a video that demonstrates another way to engage in conversation. It's not a video of two people talking, but a TEDx talk by a person who was dramatically changed by the conversations she had.

Click to play video.

Some of you may have seen this TEDx talk. It's by Megan Phelps-Roper, and called "I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here's why I left." It's normally a 15 minute video but I've edited down to nine minutes without, I think, altering the message or impact. Let's listen and then we'll talk about it.

Let's take a few minutes now to share our responses to the video. What are your takeaways from this talk about how to have difficult conversations?

At the end of the video Megan makes this statement:

"Each one of us contributes to the communities and the cultures and the societies that we make up. The end of this spiral of rage and blame begins with one person who refuses to indulge these destructive, seductive impulses. We just have to decide that it’s going to start with us."

We'll look more deeply at this decision in the next section.

NOTE: In her talk, Megan outlines four conditions that, when met, allow us to engage in difficult conversations: Assume positive intent; ask questions; stay calm; and make the argument. These 4 conditions are examples of what I call the heart and mind dimensions of communication. For more on these two dimensions, check out this blog post.