Bridge Building: Speaking the Unspoken with Civility

By Reese Ramos, Director & University Ombuds at Virginia Tech

Let’s talk politics.

I know, I know, politics is one of those taboo topics that people aren’t comfortable discussing. About a year and a half ago, the Pew Research Center came out with some research that indicated talking politics ranked low on the comfort level for most people. It’s no surprise then that decades ago Linus (yes, the kid from Snoopy and the Peanuts gang) gave us a very insightful quote about how there are three things he had learned to not talk with people about: politics, religion and the Great Pumpkin (you’ll have to watch the cartoon to understand the reference to the Great Pumpkin)! Apart from those three topics, there seems to be a long-list of other subjects that can be added to that initial list - money, racism, death, police brutality, capital punishment, vaccinations, sexism, and just about anything else that might stir controversy with others.

For years I thought that Linus’ quote was sage wisdom, and avoided talking about those topics, until I came to the conclusion that an even better approach was not necessarily avoidance, but knowing how to engage in these difficult conversations with others. If you want to play it safe and never make someone uncomfortable, than yes, absolutely take the Linus approach. But, in taking that approach all the time, what do we give up? Is there a part of us that perhaps is seeking to understand, but hesitates to explore a topic because we’re afraid we’ll be judged or misunderstood if we share a certain opinion, belief, or even, a question? How often have we heard that perhaps our intent doesn’t matter as much as the impact of our words and actions, and so, to play it safe, we just don’t venture into that territory of engaging with others? And in turn, what do we lose by not engaging with others? Is there a part of us that longs to be understood, appreciated and respected and instead we feel disconnected, disrespected and unrecognized because we are not sharing our complete selves with others?

Now, don’t get me wrong; what I’m suggesting is not that we force others to engage in conversations they are not comfortable with, or that we attempt to engage about these topics with everyone we meet all the time.  It is though, that we be mindful and deliberate about our approach, with the ultimate purpose to share our views with others and be open to the possibility that we might learn something from someone else.

  • Why are you having this conversation? 
  • And, how do you best set up the environment to increase the likelihood for dialogue? 
  • What is the ultimate purpose of your message? 
  • Are you trying to convince someone of something, or are you trying to better understand an issue and perhaps even learn something?

Most conversations around politics tend to start off from a place of polarization; it seems to be an either/or approach. Just tune in to your favorite (or better yet, not so favorite) news channel and you can get a taste of how most of those conversations are set up not to explore an issue but to reinforce two polarized beliefs. Though there are moments when polarized debates are what’s needed for today’s purposes I’m focusing on those opportunities where you are open to a dialogue. 

  • Are we communicating to convince someone of a point of view or are we communicating to both share our point of view and also understand their point of view?
  • Are we open to modifying our belief? If there was a spectrum and we could rate our belief on a scale of 1-10 of how certain we held that belief where would we be? Where do we think the other individual is on that scale? And, are we open to learning something and being open becoming more or less certain about our belief?
  • Why is the other person having this conversation with us? Are they approaching the opportunity to debate with us or are they also open to dialogue? Think of the picket sign holder and whether you really think you’ll be influential with them. Similarly, the conversations that have a higher likelihood of creating a meaningful interchange involve a level of trust that might already be built in into the relationship.
  • Have I communicated my purpose to the other person so that they know how I’m approaching the conversation? If you and the other individual are in agreement that you’re both there to learn, then it might help minimize some of the anxiety around just having the conversation.
  • Does it appear there’s sufficient time to actually engage in a conversation with them?
  • Am I myself in a composed enough state I am not going to react to the moment?
  • Is this the proper place for this conversation? Trying to engage someone at the supermarket line versus a more structured setting (such as an open forum on the specific topic at hand) will yield different results.
  • What’s the best manner and degree to engage with this person? In other words, would it make better sense to have a complex conversation in person, or video, than via social media or email? I’ve yet to see an effective conversation happen in emails, texts, chat rooms or other forms of social media.
  • How do I envision the conversation ending? When would I know it’s a good time to stop the dialogue and perhaps continue it at a later time?

What other questions would you add to the above list? The aim of these questions is just to get us to start thinking about when to engage, and disengage, from dialogue. A facet I won’t be focusing on today is the how the conversation might unfold.  A colleague of mine, mediator Ken Cloke, wrote a list of 50 powerful questions (see below) that he gave me permission to share and that we can all ask ourselves when having political conversations. I think you’ll find his questions very insightful and useful as we all, continue to have these conversations. As always, let's keep the conversation going - because that's the only way we'll get to listen to each other, understand each other, and ultimately, create solutions.