Holding Space for Dissent

In a private Facebook group I’m part of, the question was raised about how to have a civil conversation with anyone who has a different belief, opinion, position than you – voted for the other person. It is not always easy to do. I know I have to be intentional in order not to respond with a reaction when someone says something I strongly disagree with. It is a challenge.

Recently, I have started asking myself:

Am I defending the space or holding space for differences? I notice if there is a physical tightness or pressure to my chest. For me, it’s a sign I’m in resistance and have stopped listening.

My experience is you can’t convince someone against their will. They have a vested interest in the narrative they have created. Heck, you can’t convince me against my will.

I recommend getting curious. Pick one or two juicy questions that have no right or wrong answer, personal, and a little anxiety provoking. It gives them an idea to wrestle with.

Maybe something like, I can see you and I seem to have a different view of what racism is and what a racist might look like. Could you tell me more about what racism means to you? (a low-risk question)

And when they respond (if they are willing to play) – LISTEN, don’t interrupt – even if they say something that seems outrageous to you. – listen. When they finish speaking, help them do some self-reflection on what they just said.

How to do this?

Usually, I just say – Tell me more. Why is that important to you?

(Tone of voice is critical when you ask this. It can’t be sarcastic or judgmental – they’ll know you don’t really mean it in a curious way)

[you could do a little more set up – like, “you just shared a lot (or a different perspective or new information or a way I had not considered) with me. “Tell me more. Why is that important to you?]

The phrasing of the question is designed to elicit self-reflection. They can’t help it. Watch their eyes look up to their left (if right handed) as they internally ask themselves – “why is “that” important to me?”[*note: if they look down it means something very different]… And sometimes what they discover, may surprise them. AND they may not be ready to tell you. And give you a soft response. In either case, try one more time with …and why is that important to you? – if they shut down, let it go.

Respect their no to answering. Know that refusal to play is usually a sign the question is working on them.

The structure of the question is precise. Notice how you feel if you ask, “why is that important?” vs “why is that important to you/me?” Do you feel the difference?

If you feel brave, know that each time you ask the question “and why is that important to you?” – it takes them into a deeper self-reflection. I never ask that question more than 3 times. The first time I ask, I may get a fluff answer. The second time I ask, they may be annoyed and give me a more real answer. If they very annoyed. I stop and thank them.

If they are only mildly annoyed, I ask them the 3rd and last time. Sometimes magic happens. They discover an underlying belief they were not conscious of before. Then, the conversation might get juicier or they may be so surprised they stop. (unconscious = implicit bias vs. explicit bias)

Either way, you are not defending your position. Instead, you are holding space for conversation and building safety and trust with the person. Maybe next time, they will risk more with you.

Well, that was too long. If you’ve gotten to the bottom of this, you deserve a treat. So, treat yourself – read Peter Block’s book, Community the Structure of Belonging which has information on this process and join us at our A Small Group community in Cincinnati.