Today I’m musing over the concept of uncomfortable but important conversations. This one has been a sore point for me, from conversations about body hair, to gender equality and career choices, navigating the strong and opposing opinions of others around me is a constant source of frustration and learning.
Whilst I know myself lucky to have always been given a platform for voice, opinion and healthy debate in my classrooms, in my family and in my personal circles, as I mature I am realising how challenging holding and expressing contrary opinions is. When you are on the other side of someone’s opinions, it is seemingly more important to know when to say something, to considerately deliver your points and practice immense tolerance…But I guess that’s what we should be doing anyway; speaking thoughtfully, full stop?
My wonderful friend Katie got me thinking when she said, the reason it’s so hard to discuss different opinions with people is because it is so immensely personal; when you challenge someone’s opinion, you challenge their power. This resonates with me more as I reflect on it, as in most instances it is my values which underpin my opinions, and these are very personal indeed; as well as being closely intertwined with our sense of self, our values contribute to our autonomy and confidence as individuals.
Coincidently in my evolutionary economics studies at the moment I am learning how individuals create a architecture for their life using socially sourced rules and routines. Because of the interconnectedness of these heuristics for decision making, a challenge to someone’s opinion may actually present a challenge to their lifestyle as a whole. And rather than grapple with ideas that are at odds with our core constructs, as individuals we tend to ignore or manipulate ideas to fit our lifestyle architecture – a behaviour known as cognitive dissonance. This reflects the notion that people are too busy fire-fighting in other aspects of their life to be able to alter their core constructs as new ideas emerge and open new ways of thinking. Sometimes it’s just easier to go with the status quo, and like a business- its simply not efficient to constantly question your core mission and strategies.
So why then do we bother to have certain conversations about our opinions when it can be so challenging, uncomfortable and frivolous? The answer to this, for me, came from an interesting panel discussion on International Women’s Day, which highlighted the importance of speaking up and discussing gender equality with people we know, and maybe people we don’t know that well in our day to day lives, as an effective grass roots approach to creating change.
And whilst I’m in agreeance that discussing our opinions on matters that matter to us, is important, when it comes down to the art of delivering and creating a space for this exchange, I am less clear and confident. Often I find myself coming across too strong and pushy with some people, and not bothering to say anything in other situations. Like the way our opinions are informed by our lived experience, I am realising that the the way we discuss them with different people, is similarly informed by our past experiences. And so when we don’t feel heard by people, we are inclined in that moment or future ones, to shut down or speak even louder. I recognise however, that this is not necessarily the best approach. Rather, in accepting that everyone’s opinions are valid to them, we should enter these more challenging conversations with a degree of understanding and openness to them, as by way, we allow people the safety and confidence to explore them further. I think this perspective also opens us up to discerning when it’s not a conversation worth having- when perhaps we are talking to someone who makes us feel unsafe, or simply isn’t really listening to what we have to say. There is also the issue of context; some difficult conversations need to me managed for time and place appropriateness such as at work.
All in all, it’s definitely a dance which takes practice, in honouring our own values, and being accepting of others- in knowing that acceptance doesn’t mean agreeance, but that silence is too often mistaken as consent…So with this reflection, I endeavor to be a better conversationalist, to extend more understanding to others in an exchange of opinions, and use this principle as a filter itself, for those conversations that simply aren’t worth having.