Five Things That Move a Conversation Forward

I am always slightly disheartened in reading some of the vehement back-and-forth that goes on in certain corners of the web. I am all for divergent opinions and having a forum where we can discuss them, but I think that, more often than not, these discussions devolve into emotion-driven, tit-for-tat contests that serve no purpose other than to see who can be more vehement about their stance. I appreciate the fact that when your point of view is being attacked, it can be difficult to consider the attacker's perspective and to respond in a cool and rational way, but if we are truly hoping to move a conversation forward, we need to be better at creating momentum and not "stalling" a conversation with emotion. Here are 5 things that I think about before responding that have helped me to diffuse heated debate and keep a dialogue moving along.

1. People are doing the best they can with the tools they have at their disposal. When ideas or statements challenge a person's reality, they become upset. Some people have better tools for dealing with that upset than others. I consider it my responsibility to have the best set of tools in town, so that when I encounter someone who is in the middle of a challenging bout of agitation, I can remain calm and keep listening.

2. Listen. If I can hear not only the words that are coming out of someone's mouth (or through their keyboard), but can also listen for what's behind those words, I stand a much better chance of separating out the emotional part of the conversation and getting to the real issues behind the emotion.

3. Flip the empathy switch. This should actually be number one. The attacks that always throw me into upset are the ones that I don't see coming. The one's that leave me with the "Hey, what did I do to deserve this?" feeling. Well, obviously I pushed somebody's button and buttons don't usually have anything to do with the conversation I am currently having. Buttons are rooted in past experience and usually tied to a deep sense of hurt, frustration, or perceived injustice. So, the best thing I can do is to pivot toward empathy and try to walk a mile in the other person's shoes.

4. Ask questions. Retorts are easy. The problem with them though, is that they tend to create a conversational cul de sac, wherein both participants keep driving around the same point, ad nauseum. The more useful strategy when attacked is to ask questions. Asking questions shows that I care about the other person's point of view and want to understand it. Instead of reacting to the attack, I've offered a request for clarification and given the other person the opportunity to speak their mind while I listen.

5. Agree to disagree. Sometimes this is the only thing to do, and it's not a bad option. There's no failure in this strategy. It simply means that we both believe so strongly in our point of view that we cannot come to a satisfactory meeting of the minds concerning the subject at hand. As long as we have listened to each other, comprehended the other person's point of view, and shown respect for each other, we can go our separate ways with no harm done.

Now, I'd like to say that I am far from mastering any of these techniques and, from time to time, I still find myself in the all too familiar state of agitation. But, I have found that thinking about these five things always helps to restart a stalled conversation and always serves to diffuse the emotional component that is at the center of most heated debates. Happy conversating.


  1. An excellent list. '4: Ask Questions' is one I hadn't thought of and is not only a good idea, but it can help lead to listening and empathy (2&3). And other times it can help the other person de-escalate as they analyze what might have been a post in anger.

    As I get my mind around proper public Internet behavior #5 is the most valuable. Last week someone posted a comment on one of my blogs that had me seething. I planned and schemed for three days on what to say to get back at that so-and-so. Eventually I calmed down enough to just let it go. Being in a flame war was not a good use of my time. Now, surprisingly I don't even remember what the comment was about.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  2. Wow, Steve. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, and thanks for forwarding the conversation! Much appreciated.

  3. I used to work in a retail store and we had a customer who would buy $200 or so worth of items, keep them for a week and then return them all. Never taken out of the bag. She did this once every 2 months. She never complained and she never acted as if she didn't really want the things. She wasn't laundering money either. She just enjoyed the process. Maybe she was lonely.
    My point is that sometimes, people enjoy doing things that a majority of people loathe. While I would never get on a website comment board and spit vitriol to the very creators of the board or my fellow readers, some people enjoy the discord.
    The best thing is as Steve said... give it some time before you respond and you'll find that you move on...
    Now get back to crafting, you jerk... That was a joke... someone really needs to create that sarcasm font..

  4. I agree 100%. When having a disagreement with anyone I always tell them "I am not looking to win, I am looking for a resolution." and I think that fits here.

  5. L Prez - Hilarious. I love the bit at the end. Thanks for the levity, and the comment.

    Tim - Yeah man, resolution is the key. Thanks for the comment.

  6. i think that if we could get into the mind of another person - any other person in the entire world - we would be so blown away by their perception of the world and how much it differs from our own.

    that's something i try to keep in mind when dealing with a difficult someone and/or situation.

    good post.

  7. Diane - Agreed. One of my favorite scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird is when Atticus is explaining empathy to Scout. We could all use a dose of that. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Someone, I wish I could remember who so I could thank them, once told me that if you get upset about something on the Net, sit down with pen and paper and write your initial response. This does two things: 1) it keeps you from accidentally hitting the "send" button on an email or the "post" button on a blog, and 2) since most of us write more slowly than we type, it forces you to slow down a bit and think. I've only used the technique a few times, but I was amazed at how quickly I went from furious/agitated to ready to drop the whole thing or to seeing an additional point of view. I really do believe that a log of the negativity and seeming thoughlessness on the Net comes from the ability to simply rip off a post and throw it out into the world.