The Book I Need Has Yet to Be Written

In search of a guide for having difficult conversations about contentious issues.

By Rishelle Wimmer, SWE Editorial Board

Living in a diverse society, we are challenged to value the contributions, presence, and perspectives of people who differ from ourselves. At the same time, we are confronted with issues that are so personally divisive that a semblance of civility is difficult to maintain. According to Teresa M. Bejan, Ph.D., professor of political theory at the University of Oxford, civility is an “artifice of good faith, good manners, and respectful behavior that we adopt when sincere feelings for others don’t exist.” It allows society to function as we address divergent stances on contentious issues.

In her book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, Dr. Bejan considers how a civil and tolerant society should function, while she raises questions of how we might engage in, instead of suppressing, disagreement. She speculates whether:

“ … something so superficial as how we speak to each other would solve the deeper problems — the private hatreds, resentments, and mutual contempt — in short, the discord — plaguing our own society? Indeed, why on earth would talking to each other, however civilly, about the questions and commitments that divide us most deeply bring us closer together at all.”

Her image of a “discord plague” was inspiration for my word rap “Discourse Discord,” a reminder of the divisive issues that divide us.

Dr. Bejan’s book was the beginning of my quest to find an algorithm for engaging in difficult conversations about contentious issues — at work, in the classroom, or at social gatherings. Some authors suggested ignoring or avoiding contentious issues at work or encouraged using the clash of opinions as a teachable moment in the classroom. And while there is excellent literature on negotiation and persuasion in Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, J.D., and William Ury, Ph.D., there was no definitive advice on how to deal with virulently opposing viewpoints.

The importance of the process

As I searched for the ultimate guidebook that explained “how-to” interact with people who hold contrary positions on divisive issues, I realized that it is not the outcome of these difficult discussions that is important, but the process by which a respectful discourse takes place, forming foundations of trust among people with opposing views.

While much has been said about not discussing hot topics at work, it is difficult to ignore controversial and sometimes offensive statements and not engage — the question is, how to engage well. Should we seek common ground and attempt to understand the other person’s point of view? Or do we subscribe to a behavior that Dr. Bejan recognizes as “self-segregating,” where we prefer to associate only with people who share our beliefs and opinions? This approach may reduce the potential for a conflict of opinion, but increases what Elizabeth Lesser refers to as “otherising — the dangerous act of turning someone into the enemy just because he or she looks … or thinks differently.”

Books and articles I consulted:

Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration
Teresa M. Bejan, Ph.D.
ISBN 9780674545496
Publication Date: 01/02/2017

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton
(for the updated editions)
New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991
ISBN-13 978-0143118756

“How to Have Difficult Conversations”
Elizabeth Lesser,

“Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom”
Lee Warren,

“9 Topics You Should Never Discuss at Work — Based on Science”
Tony Ewing,

Managing ourselves in the moment

Human beings seek relationship; we want to belong and be included. Diversity begs the act of inclusion. So, what can we do to achieve the ideal of inclusion when challenged to interact with people who are not like ourselves and represent opinions that are in conflict with our own?

To live well in a diverse society requires social and emotional intelligence — being cognizant of our positions and biases, as well as having empathy for others. By recognizing, respecting, and valuing differences, we can better relate to those who do not reflect our identity and opinions.

Although civility provides a form of self-restraint, and guides our intellect to apply discretion when approaching contentious issues, our emotions may be triggered and override our best intentions when faced with the heat of the “hot moment.” Lee Warren, at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, explains that the challenge of hot moments is our ability to manage ourselves. We have the possibility of rising to the occasion through simple acts.

He encourages us to respond to hot moments by slowing down the situation, and use methods of engaged listening to better understand the other person. Sometimes simply asking someone to repeat what they’ve said, or ask, “What makes you say that?” or “What did you mean?” we can prevent escalation and diminish conflict. And after someone has shared their perspective, follow up by asking them to explain why they hold these views. Continue the conversation by encouraging them to consider why people with opposing views think as they do. Further, ask them to reflect on how other people might feel about their opinion.

And while we want to hold people accountable for what they say, Warren reminds us to recognize that one statement doesn’t reveal the entirety of a person’s character. Finally, he points out that it is important to consider our response to the hot moment in both the short- and long-term.

But before we engage in any discussion, Fisher and Dr. Ury in their classic book on negotiation highlight the need to understand the issue and to reflect on our personal viewpoints and biases. They also stress the importance of acknowledging the other person’s underlying interests and concerns, and to value their presence by exercising empathy.

Approaching difficult conversations as a journey, not a destination

When we find ourselves amid differing perspectives, our objective should be not to win the argument or change people’s positions, but to understand one another and respond with respect.

To be accepting of others does not mean we must agree on every point. Instead, we want to move beyond disdain for those on the other side of an issue. The ability to navigate the tensions resulting from divergent viewpoints begins by seeing people beyond their opinions and respecting one another as human beings. The value of civility lies not in the outcome of the discussion, but in the quality of relationship established through foundations of trust and respect.

Although the definitive book has yet to be written, my search to find it was valuable. I encourage readers to explore the body of literature that is available and experiment with new ways of engaging in difficult conversations.

Word Rap

Discourse Discord
red, blue
black, white
gender, identity, equal right
to choose, to life, to love

immigrate, discriminate
climate change, free range
save the people
save the planet
vote your conscience
speak your mind

by Rishelle Wimmer

Rishelle Wimmer (she/her) is a senior lecturer in the information technology and systems management department of the FH Salzburg University of Applied Sciences in Austria. She studied operation research and system analysis at Cornell University and holds a master’s degree in educational sciences from the University of Salzburg. She serves on the SWE editorial board and the research advisory council and has been the faculty advisor for the Salzburg SWE affiliate since FY17.