Whether online or off, conversations are happening around us all of the time. Conversations open a door and allow us an opportunity to connect with our fellow human beings. Through this exchange, we seek to understand and be understood. We want to be seen and heard and we want to see and hear others.
Some of us want our ideas validated by others – this can come from a place of ego or it can come from a place of wanting to belong. Others simply want a soapbox – to spout their thoughts and have people line up in agreement. Some people want to live in a world where their way is the only way.
All too often, conversations can go a little sideways. Opinions, judgement and minced words can cause hurt feelings and force strong emotions to the surface. Sometimes the intent was malicious and other times accidental. We are all on a journey of exploration and at times, we bump up against each other in difficult ways.
I read a quote once that said something along the lines of, “We listen to respond instead of listening to understand” and I found myself nodding furiously in agreement. Our society moves so fast and is so on-on-on that our inability to be patient extrapolates out into our interactions with each other.
We dive down people’s throats before we fully understand their intent.
We rally together against a common enemy without all of the facts.
We don’t give people the space to respond but rather hammer them with even more of our own big, bold, loud (and supposedly always correct) opinions until the other person in the interaction waves a white flag and stops engaging.
And then, when we’ve been rallied around by enough people with our same opinions and the other person retreats, feeling defeated and misunderstood, we feel victorious.
“HA! I showed them!”
There is, however, another way in which we can move forward. A way that we can put our comments to a litmus test before throwing them around so carelessly. A way to be more compassionate, seek to understand, give people a chance to respond and give ourselves a chance to have a more open mind.
We can listen.
We can add our opinion when it feels useful, helpful and when it’s loaded with the best intent.
Before adding anything to a conversation, there are three questions that I like to consider. I have found these three questions to be incredibly potent in keeping myself out of potentially tricky situations. It has allowed me the time and space to try and understand others before making a judgement call.
You may find them helpful or you may not. In an effort to start a conversation about conversations, here are the three questions that I ask myself before adding a comment or my opinion to an exchange:
1. Is my comment helpful?
Before you comment or add to a conversation, ask yourself — is this comment helpful? I don’t mean passive-aggressively helpful nor do I mean backhandedly helpful. I mean truly, honestly, nothing-in-it-for-you helpful. Will it make their life easier? Is it something that maybe they haven’t considered?
The comments we add to a conversation are often extremely reactionary.
For example, we may see someone post something online (a Tweet, a Facebook post, etc.) and without having all of the context around their comment, we may feel offended or misunderstood by that person (whether it was directed at us or not). When this happens, we can often find ourselves slinging a comment back to that person that is off the cuff and, at times, off the mark.
This reactionary behaviour is often extremely unhelpful. Instead, if you find yourself in a reactionary space, ask that same person a question. Start a dialogue. You may find that the person didn’t mean what you thought they meant and it opens you both up to a healthy and enriching exchange.
2. Who am I adding this comment for?
If your response is not “for the other person” or “for other people’s benefit”, there is a good chance that your comment is not going to be a welcome addition.
Here’s why: when you aren’t adding to a conversation for someone else’s sake, the comment is generally being added for your own benefit and can therefore come across as self-serving.
Move into the habit of asking yourself who the intended audience is so that you can truly add benefit to the conversation rather than simply standing on a soapbox.
3. Am I willing to entertain an opposing idea or am I simply trying to prove that my way is the “right” way?
If your comment is helpful and you’re adding it for the benefit others, the final test is to ask yourself if you are willing and open to have your mind changed or your opinion shifted. Conversations are meant to be exchanges – information shared back and forth. They aren’t meant to be sermons or lectures.
If you are unwilling to see another side or you simply want to blast your opinion until the other person concedes, there’s a good chance that it won’t add value to the conversation. In fact, it’ll likely just make people upset and shut down from the conversation completely.
Be open to having your opinion changed and you’ll become a better conversationalist. You’ll find yourself asking more questions to better understand someone’s position. You may even find that something in their way of thinking sparks a new insight for you. But, you’ll never know if you aren’t willing to go there.