Have you ever been involved in an intense discussion? Perhaps it was with your siblings or your parents or with a friend.
I’m not talking about an excited conversation, such as you might have about whether or not Lebron James is a better basketball player than Michael Jordan or whether or not Minnesota is a more beautiful state than Michigan. Those conversations might sound intense–people might get excited or even raise their voices as they try to prove their point, but at the end everyone knows the stakes were low and the subject matter trivial.
I’m talking about intense discussions regarding ideas and beliefs that we hold deeply, and depending on how the conversation goes or how we handle ourselves, could result in someone being pretty hurt.
This year has held a lot of intense discussions for me and I suspect it has for you, as well.
Ever since COVID-19 hit, there have been discussions upon discussions upon discussions concerning the legitimacy of stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and the danger of the virus itself. Combined with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd which sparked nationwide protests, some of which turned into violent riots leading to long and setting off a whole new round of discussions about racism and police brutality. Now, in the midst of all this, those of us in America have the Presidential elections coming up with reckless pundits suggesting that either side might not peacefully accept the results.
Have I touched on a discussion you’ve heard yet?
This year feels hard and one thing that has added to the anxiety of it all is the way disagreements have shredded through friendships, churches, and even families.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to think through how we can improve our conversations–particularly our disagreements. As Christian young people, I think we have an opportunity to be an example of what it looks like to navigate disagreements in a Christ-like way.
What’s difficult about this, is that sometimes hard conversations need to be had–that is just part of navigating life as faulty humans. To avoid messy, difficult, painful conversations can result in someone else continuing to be hurt. We will never grow if we brush hard conversations to the side. Thus, the solution is not to run away from disagreements, but to learn how to navigate them like a kayaker navigates a treacherous rapids.
Last week, I wrote about seven ways we can improve our disagreements. This week, I wanted to give a few suggestions on how to improve the actual dialogue of a conversation.
So, here are five phrases I think teens should start using during an intense discussion.
“I didn’t know that.”
We have all been told to say “I don’t know” more often when asked a question we cannot answer truthfully, but taking it a step further by saying “I didn’t know that” in response to new information implies we are learning from our conversation partner. We are willing to receive as well as give. If a conversation is not two-way, then it’s not a discussion, it’s a lecture.
“What has your experience been like?”
People are more than ideas and opinions. In fact, people’s experience can have tremendous influence on what they believe and the opinions they form. Oftentimes, hearing someone’s experience can transform our judgement of them and give us deeper understanding into why they hold to the beliefs and ideas that they do.
If you find yourself spouting off your perspective without ever pausing to hear your conversation partner’s experience, first off, you are probably not impressing them (which likely means you are not convincing them), and second, you are being incredibly rude. Again, I am going to keep beating this drum till I break it: If a conversation is not a two-way exchange of ideas where both participants are given opportunities to speak as well as listen intently, it is not a discussion, it’s a lecture.
“What I hear you saying is…”
Many times in discussions, Person A will launch into responding to Person B’s idea and their response makes no sense to Person B or, even worse, paints Person B’s idea in a bad light. This is because either intentionally or not, Person A misunderstood B’s original idea. A good conversational habit is to rephrase what someone just said and say it back to them with some sort of question. “What I hear you saying is [such-and-such]. Did I understand you right?” This gives them a chance to clarify and enables you to have a better response.
“Can we reschedule this conversation?”
An important part of any healthy relationships is setting boundaries. If there is a discussion that you and a family member or friend have had that is hard for one or both of you, you may need to set some boundaries around that topic.
This may mean rescheduling a conversation to a specific time and place so you both can emotionally prepare for it by saying something like “This does not feel like a good time and place for us to talk about this, but I do want to talk about it sometime. Can we reschedule this conversation and just have fun together tonight?” Who knows, building emotional bonds by having a good time together may just be the key to unlocking your disagreement. When you guys finally work through it, you will have affection and grace for each other that you did not have before.
“Should we give this topic a break?”
Or, setting boundaries may simply mean deciding the topic is off-limits for a period of time. In that case, you may say something like, “I really value our friendship, but it feels like we keep wounding each other when we discuss this. What would you think of making this an “off-limits topic” for a while whenever we are together until we are both ready to talk about it again?”
There are times when boundaries like these are useful and important, however, I would suggest (as always) that you discuss boundaries with humility, gentleness, and deference. If you simply say, “Let’s not talk about that!” you could end up making it worse. Or, if your friend feels like you need to talk it through to some resolution, you could end up running over their desires and needs. Setting boundaries takes a lot of humility and discernment. They are important to healthy relationships, but you may need to get feedback and wisdom from older friends, parents, or mentors in order to set them well.
What do you guys think about these phrases? Are there any phrases that you think we should start using? Let me know in the comments!