I attended a presentation recently where the person speaking was talking about when it is and is not appropriate to challenge your host's views, perhaps at a dinner party or other social event. He noted that in some cultures, it's perfectly appropriate and expected to have a heated discussion about the topic at hand, and that it is done without introducing any sense of offense, malice or personal attack. In the U.S., he noted, we tend to make (and take) everything so personal that it is generally not acceptable to challenge someone's views unless (the narrative goes) you are prepared to take extraordinary measures to dance around their ego and perhaps walk away never to speak to each other again.
As I thought about these observations (which I suppose are fairly obvious to those who hop between cultures), I realized that I'm definitely someone who prefers to be challenged, and who gets the most out of a conversation when I feel safe doing the challenging. But I know that in the course of seeking healthy dialog, especially dialog in the public sphere amongst relative strangers, it can still be quite a balancing act to engage in challenge with a positive outcome. And I worry that our fear of challenging or being challenged, or being out of practice with actually doing it, means that we end up missing out on great opportunities for conversation and building shared vision with those around us.
So I thought it worth writing down some of the ways that I find useful to challenge and be challenged, in hopes of eliciting comments and refinements from others who find themselves aware of their own tendencies and preferences in these areas.
First, I should be more clear about what I mean when I talk about challenging someone. If you're already clearly engaged in a debate or dialog about an issue (such as you might be at a book club, or debate competition, or editorial board meeting), then you may be challenging each others` perspectives or opinions, but that's not the kind of challenge I'm referring to. I'm talking about a setting like the scenario mentioned above, where there's no default expectation that a statement or expressed view is in question, or that the listeners will react in any remotely opposing way to the speaker.
A dinner gathering where conversation is typically kept polite. A hallway conversation about the day's news. A social exchange in a public place. These seem like settings where if someone says "Red really is the greatest color out there, and so..." and you happen to think that red is simply the worst color out there, you generally aren't expected to interrupt them to say so, if you say anything at all. The challenge is a turning point where the chit-chat has ended, where the weather is no longer relevant, and the topic at hand is of importance to those conversing. And of course, I'm not talking about colors here....for me, red is politics, red is reproductive rights, red is money management, red is peak oil and climate change, red is how to raise kids properly, red is peace and justice issues, red is religion and spirituality.
What do I get out of being challenged? I'm asked to reconsider my views, to explore where they came from, to understand where I'm at with them now - that's exciting! I learn how to communicate better, to make myself understood in ways that I don't currently know - that's great! I get to know viewpoints that are not my own, to really understand them, and perhaps even to adopt them - wonderful. When I think of times in my life when I've grown the most, felt the most alive, they are times when I've been challenged into new ways of looking at the world.
So, If someone wants to tell me that I'm wrong about red, to challenge me on my views, here are some ways that really work for me:
- Speaking plainly and boldly about how you feel. "Chris, I think you're just wrong about that, and here's why." I respect it when feelings and views are not diluted out of concern for ego or politeness, though I certainly understand and frequently give in to that impulse.
- Maintaining the tone of the conversation even as its importance or intensity may escalate. I appreciate that some people express themselves best through raising their voice or gesturing wildly, but I generally don't respond well to it. I think emphasis and importance can be shown in ways that don't alienate someone (like me) who wants to hear and process the words as clearly as possible, without distraction. I fully realize that this is just something I can hope for, but not expect out of many people.
- Understanding my perspective fully. As I always strive to do for someone in a conversation, I can most engage another when I know that they are trying to see an issue from where I stand, and ask the questions necessary to get there. If it is always left to me to "make my position clear" and the other person isn't invested in helping, then things quickly turn to debate and thoughts of victory for victory's sake, instead of genuine mutual understanding.
Here are some things that really don't work for me:
- Interrupting. If I'm interrupting someone, then we're not having a conversation, we're exchanging monologues, and we're back to trying to win instead of trying to understand or agree. If someone is interrupting me, then I no longer have any sense of confidence in their ability to hear me out, and I just want the conversation to be over. I know that many, many interruption-laden conversations happen every day in families, businesses, and public spaces every day, and I know that it seems normal to some, but for me it's a symptom of the declining quality of important dialog.
- Justifying a challenge based solely on vague personal declarations of understanding about how the world is. I'm fully in support of having conversation in this country that is LESS focused on the might and power of logic to the detriment of emotion and less cerebral forms of connection. But, if you're going to tell me that I'm wrong about red, you can't JUST tell me that it's because you feel that way: "Chris, you're wrong about red because everything I've ever experienced tells me so." Whatever your reasoning, or emoting, or deep sense of right and wrong that guides you, you have to find a way to help me see it if we are to understand each other.
When I challenge someone, there are a number of things I take into consideration:
- Is this a situation where challenging this person can have a good and worthwhile outcome? Is it possible for us to have an exchange that is meaningful? If not, is the challenge about an issue that is important enough to go ahead anyway (i.e. standing up for something on principle more important than my relationship with the person I'm challenging)? Will the resulting conversation be impacted negatively by the setting? Would a written challenge be more effective?
- When I challenge someone's views, can I do it in a way that authentically represents my own views or that respectively questions the reservations I have about their views, or is it just going to be a negation of something they've said that leaves no real path forward for them in the conversation? Am I challenging out of care, or out of the desire to be right?
- When does it end? If we challenge each other, and we don't come to some point of understanding or clarity, how will we find closure? Does the other person want to resolve the challenge as much as I do (or more, or less)? What kinds of signs should I look for that they're done? When and how will I express my need to end the conversation?
That's what I have for now. What do you think? Do you like to challenge or be challenged in a conversation? If not, why not? If so, what methods or approach do and don't work for you?