What does it mean to be a good frenemy?
When confronted with disagreement, we often let our ‘fight or flight’ reflexes take over. Depending on the context and our personality, we either dig in for battle, marshaling the best arguments we can and disregarding our opponents, or we flee and avoid difficult conversations. Both strategies can certainly be appropriate in many situations, but there are times when it behooves us to find ways to engage in productive conversations with our counterparts.
There is a lot of great advice out there on how to engage in genuine and civil dialogue, and increase mutual understanding. One effective technique is ‘active listening’. As the name implies, this is not a passive process of simply waiting our turn, paying little attention to what others have to say while we prepare our arguments in our heads, and then delivering our monologue when we have the chance. Instead, this approach calls on us to really listen, asking probing questions to dig deeper into our counterparts’ perspectives and confirm that we understand what they are saying. Active listening does not ask us to change our minds, although that can happen, but rather that we remain open and willing to increase our empathy and understanding. Ideally, this increased empathy and understanding will, when appropriate, create windows of opportunity and creativity to arrive at ‘fair, efficient, stable and wise’ consensus on the matters at hand.
Active listening involves respectful interrogation. That is, being respectful of our counterparts, avoiding recrimination, assumptions, and vitriol, while probing to understand and challenge each other. Inappropriate language: Don’t you care about me? Why don’t you just go home/change/be reasonable? Appropriate language: Where do your views come from? Have you ever had a friend that is ___ like me? What would you do about ____? While what we say matters a lot, so does our body language; the non-verbal cues we send can be very powerful.
When the tensions are particularly high, it can be helpful to agree on a set of ground rules before the conversation even starts. These might include:
- Be respectful of your counterparts, which involves being thoughtful in the language you choose and non-verbal cues you send;
- Be ready to (really) listen as much as, if not more than, you speak;
- Ask probing questions to better understand where your counterparts are coming from;
- Try to suspend judgment, particularly until others have expressed their opinions, but do question assumptions;
- Describe your views, but do not make assumptions around others’;
- Attempt to understand rather than just persuade, remaining open-minded;
- Do not interrupt each other – only one person should speak at a time;
- Do not make personal attacks; and
- Aim to speak honestly about your reasons for expressing a particular concern or point of view, and avoid holding ‘hidden agendas’.
- National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD.org)
- Difficult Conversations (Book by Stone, Patton and Heen, 2010)
- Negotiating the Nonnegotiable (Book by Shapiro, 2016)
- Mosaic White Paper on Active Listening & Effective Questioning
The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. ~Joseph Joubert