Bridging Differences in Conversation


When strongly felt differences arise in the moment, we can find ourselves at a loss for words, for reasons, and for the patience to find and express either. All we know is that something important is at stake that we cannot let go of without it being seen, heard, and understood by others.  

The Presenting Problem

A colleague recently asked me about resources he might use in helping a group learn how to talk more easily with one another about their different beliefs and world views. As we talked, he observed that the differences are not so much world views, for that implies a set of beliefs that is both comprehensive and rationally constructed. Rather, their differences were emotionally charged feelings and attitudes. 

To say they’re emotional is not to denigrate them. It describes their origin and intensity as beliefs and attitudes to which we’re strongly attached, vital feelings that signal something is at stake. Emotional, in this sense, does not necessarily rule out rational. It indicates a pre-reflective energizing source of beliefs, attitudes, and reactions. And it should invite us to take them seriously. 

When we are energized by such emotions, we want them to be taken seriously, to be respected. And if they are treated this way, we may be willing to submit them to a more considered examination. 

Truth be told, many positive actions and decisions are born of emotional reactions and intuitions. And the way they become informed actions or decisions is through being heard, considered, articulated, and elaborated. What was originally felt, perhaps with strong visceral reactions – positive or negative – can prompt reflection. It’s as though they are there to alert us, to tell us something important. 

Difficult Conversations

Yes, there’s a book by that name, and I recommended it to my colleague. It contains a methodological technique that is quite helpful as a means de-escalating and navigating discussion of differences that may feel threatening to broach and discuss. But my thoughts went elsewhere. They went directly to the crux of the matter, i.e., that strong feelings arising from emotional data are worth understanding 

Listening, hearing, and understanding the emotional data that fuel strong feelings is of value in the process of knowledge creation. It’s not that the relevant beliefs and knowledge exist beforehand and define our differences – at least not always. Often, the primary data of experience are not rational, they’re emotional, and they need to be translated into rational meaning through dialogue. 

In the process of patiently exploring what our emotional data are telling us, and why they’re causing us to feel the way we do, we learn more about why these emotions were triggered to begin with. We see what was felt to be important. As it is verbalized, often with significant effort, we find the right words and ideas to characterize our affective response. We gain control in the process. 

With practice, this translational act of transforming raw emotional data into words, ideas, and rational meaning occurs with greater ease. We gain fluency. When it’s done interpersonally, we learn that our emotional data are worth the time to consider. They often function as an early warning system. We come to see them as a starting point rather than denigrating them as an inferior class of data. 

Normative Considerations (rules of engagement)

But doing this implies norms of propriety and effectiveness that also create conditions mutual respect. There are two basic normative considerations that should guide our approach to these conversational communications practices: 

Expectation of Reasonableness

We owe one another reasons and an attitude of reasonableness. To genuinely hear and understand the import and meaning of others felt reactions and concerns, we must be an ally. Our questions must serve to help explore and articulate this meaning. And as the person who experiences the emotions directly and wants other to understand, we owe others our best effort to provide reasons. Patience is critical. 

Communicative Action vs Strategic Action

Before we seek to influence outcomes toward a desired end (strategic action), we must first create conditions of mutual understanding (communicative action). Communicating for understanding and honoring the norms patience and reasonableness described above enhances trust and ensures we’ll be heard and that we’ll hear others.  This makes any remaining differences much more discussable.