Navigating Difficult Conversations

“When I am afraid to speak is when I speak.
That is when it is most important.”
Nayyirah Waheed

A few months ago, we were fortunate to attend a “Java with Jayapal” event at Third Place Books in Ravenna. We asked her, “If you could make an ask of the local scientific community, what would it be?” Jayapal thought it over for a minute and responded:

              Use your voices as scientists. People trust you and that is powerful.

She challenged us to make a list of 10 people who are either not engaged or hold opposite views, and have real conversations to discuss what we, as professional scientists, know and what science can tell us about everyday life and politics.

With that charge, we reached out to Seattle’s Nora Ludviksen and Jim Levy, two professional mediators and founders of Come to the Table, a confidential service that offers conflict coaching and mediation for individuals and workplaces. With the holidays coming up, we hoped to learn how to talk to our friends and family who hold opposite viewpoints over the dinner table and not  end the night by storming away from the table. Nora and Jim held a workshop for the 500WS and the greater public titled, “From Restive to Festive: Handling Holiday Conversations” where they explained skills and techniques to have difficult conversations in today’s polarized atmosphere.

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Nora opened the event with an image two seemingly different paths: an image of tar and an image of fallen pine needles. What was common between these paths? What was different?  Finding commonalities in these images illustrated how we all have commonalities, and if we can build on those, engaging in difficult conversations can be more cooperative and less like a battle.

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Nora and Jim then walked us through the 5 Conflict Handling Styles: Avoiding, Accommodating, Competing, Compromising, and Collaborating.  Depending on our self-assessed importance of the relationship or the issue, we tend to gravitate towards one style more than the other.  Recognizing conflict styles in ourselves and in our friends and family can allow for more mutual respect as we engage in difficult conversations. We closed by practicing how to be more respectful listeners, which is a key skill in having difficult conversations. If a person feels heard, they will be more respectful of you, and your ideas—this is key for talking about science. 

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Thank you to both Nora and Jim!