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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Learning to Discuss

Maybe you have heard this story …

Two men were having a rather heated discussion while a third watched from a distance. After a bit the two shook hands and went their separate ways. One of the men was a friend of the third and walked up to him. The watcher commented, “You two were having quite a discussion, but you seemed to end it well. What happened?”

“Oh, we were arguing about which candidate is best,” said the fellow, “but we agreed in the end that we would only cancel each other’s vote and decided not to vote at all.” The man looked a little sheepish.

“What’s wrong?” said the third, “you look a bit guilty.”

“Well,” admitted the man, “I’ve made that same deal with four other people already.”

There are certain things that everyone hates. Fingernails on a chalkboard or squeaking on a balloon. Rain on a picnic day.Mosquitoes. But most of all, political commercials.

I have never heard someone say, “I really like the political commercials because they help me decide how to vote.” And, yet, they must work to some degree because some very smart people spend lots of money on them.

These issues and these candidates are important and it is wise to know something about the issues. But I’m not writing this to comment on any specific issue or on politics at all. Instead I’m thinking about how we go about discussing issues of any kind.

Think about the following comments (which I’ve heard in various versions from people or in commercials):
“All Republicans/Democrats/Conservative/Liberals are idiots.”
“A person would have to be crazy to vote yes/no on that issue.”
“Everything so-n-so says is just a lie.”

I could go on. Do any of those things encourage a discussion? I don’t think so. They are what were called “Killer Phrases” at Altru Health System's Healthcare Horizons event. They stop everything and folks scatter or rush to change the subject.

Now, move from politics to work or family life, to community events or church. Doesn’t this happen all the time? We start to discuss an issue of any kind, but someone (maybe us!) says something which ends the discussion.

We know Killer Phrases when we hear them. Usually they are emotional and bring out emotional responses. Often they are attacks upon a person or group of persons. Sometimes they are meant to stop discussion.

A spouse says to her husband, “You keep our bedroom and your clothes like you are a 10-year-old.” Now, that’s probably true. But isn’t the goal to improve things and not just start an emotional argument?

At work someone says, “The management isn’t very bright and they don’t understand us.” Notice how broad a brush is used. Again there is a personal attack and this one is topped off by including everyone in whether they agree or not “they don’t understand us.’” There may be real issues to discuss, but this doesn’t call for discussion but renders a final verdict.

We could keep going to talk about issues at home or at the gym or with extended family. But step one in stopping Killer Phrases is clear: Try to avoid saying any. Let’s ask ourselves if what we want to say will help discussion or end it. Will our words heighten emotions or focus on issues? Can we disagree in an agreeable sort of way?  Who knows, maybe we will find out something we didn’t know before? Maybe we’ll even understand an issue better or change our mind. Miracles do happen, you know.

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