Episode 3 – Brave, Fragile, Still Talking

Welcome to Braving Politics Podcast! I’m Emily Bergeson, State Senate candidate with the United Utah Party.

A lot has been going on over the last week that has ramped up efforts to fix problems within law enforcement, especially relating to black citizens. 

This may be a scary and emotional time for many. As candidates with the United Utah Party we come from a variety of ideological backgrounds, but we choose to unite so that we can work together to improve things. During times when we may not all see eye-to-eye, it’s important to give each other some flexibility. We may say things that are misunderstood or taken the wrong way. We may encounter people who more vocally disagree with us. It can be daunting. These sensitive issues reveal how we are all sometimes a bit fragile, even as we try to be brave and make a difference. 

Most of this podcast will be dedicated to finding a way to have positive conversations, but I want to acknowledge that hurt feelings are real too. It’s okay to recognize when our feelings get hurt and take necessary breaks. We hope to give you some ideas for how to make things better, but it’s important to set our expectations appropriately. Not all conversations will go smoothly and we shouldn’t expect perfection from ourselves or from others. 

With that, we join with you in researching and trying to understand this issue better. There is a lot of great information available to us as we strive to understand and determine what we can do. It’s especially important to be willing to listen and discuss with others who may have a different viewpoint. That is sometimes difficult, but we can set the tone of kindness and patience. 

Since it’s not always easy to know how to be kind or patient with people, we’re going to walk through some tips that can apply in a variety of situations. These suggestions are good to keep in mind when the topic is especially sensitive. Included are a few sample phrases. I don’t know about you, but it does help to have specific phrases to pull out when I’m struggling. 

Let’s get started. 

Whenever you engage in any conversation, always assume good intentions. Even if you feel someone has said something particularly offensive, unless they are making it abundantly clear that they are trying to hurt your feelings, assume first that the person is not trying to hurt you. If we need to say this outloud we might say:

“I know you have a good heart and that you care, it’s just not coming across that way in what you’re saying.”

If someone is being particularly hurtful you might say,

“I’m sure you’re upset, either by something I’ve said or something else going on. But I think we can figure this out, and it doesn’t help to say hurtful things.”

Here’s another good rule of thumb:

Seek first to understand before trying to be understood. If we first try to understand the other person before we try to share our point of view, chances are the conversation will go a lot better. Even if we are struggling to understand, we shouldn’t necessarily give up and jump straight to explaining our position. You can let the other person know that you’re trying, even if you’re struggling.

You might say:

“I know this is hard and I really appreciate your patience with me. I’m trying to understand where you’re coming from, I really am. And, I’m not giving up until I do.”

As a note, if you need to take a break when it’s especially hard to see the other person’s point of view and you’re both frustrated, go ahead and take a break. Instead of saying something you might regret, it’s better to wait and try again later. 

Now, in some conversations, no matter how hard you are both trying to communicate, there are sometimes limitations that can’t be resolved in one conversation. Sometimes it’s okay to acknowledge these limitations openly, or maybe you’ll just have to make a mental note and move on. 

One common challenge is that we often speak in anecdotes, or in story form, trying to make connections as we attempt to make sense of what someone is saying. Sometimes those stories make it easy to relate to each other. Sometimes the stories cause more division and frustration.  It’s important to recognize there is likely a story to support either side of an issue. Getting trapped in anecdotes can escalate into “my pain is worse than yours” kind of conversation. At that point, it’s almost guaranteed we’re not listening. 

One way to solve this problem is to acknowledge the experiences and validate what you can. When engaged in a story war, no one wins. Change the cascade of one-upmanship with some of these phrases:

“Wow. That gives me a lot to think about.”

“Whoa. That doesn’t sound fun.” 

Even if your automatic response is to find a similar experience, fight the urge because by doing that, you can end up trivializing the other person’s experience. Just because you can find a similar experience doesn’t mean the experience itself was entirely similar. Again, seek first to understand before being understood. 

If you find yourself really struggling to understand someone else’s experience, all is not lost. You can give yourself some time to digest by saying something like: 

“I’m trying to see your point, but we are obviously coming from different experiences. That’s not to say either one of us has a more or less valid experience. It just might take some time before we can fully understand each other, and that’s okay.”

Another common limitation to a good conversation is when you recognize that either you or the other person is struggling to accept new information. It’s pretty normal for adults to struggle accepting something new or different. It can help to acknowledge that by saying: 

“You know, I know this isn’t a new issue, but I am struggling with some of these ideas that just don’t make sense to me. I don’t know if this conversation is going to fix it all and I might have to do some more research on my own before I’m ready.”

Also helpful might be to say:

“I know a lot of this may feel unfamiliar and I don’t expect you to accept everything I’m saying. You can take some time to research the topic some more on your own. I’m happy to share some of the resources I found helpful.” 

A note about offering resources… You are more likely to get people to take you up on your offer if you make it an open invitation, and not something forced or sarcastic. We need to ease into new information. We want the initial experience to be welcoming so it’s easier to swallow the changes that need to take place. And just so you know, it can be daunting to receive a 20 title book list to read, a number of  podcasts to listen to and several movies to watch. Whether for you or for your friend, keep it reasonable. 

Now, when conversations over sensitive topics get particularly heated, it can be helpful to set boundaries. If you’re struggling with something, don’t be afraid to speak up. You don’t have to suffer in silence. If there are some things that are just hard for you to hear, or things that are outside of your comfort zone, it can help to let the other person know specifically what that is. You should also invite the other person to set reasonable boundaries for themselves as well. Sometimes we don’t even realize we need boundaries and simply continue reacting. 

While phrases may be different based on the boundaries you need to set here is a sample scenario to get you started: 

Let’s say the person you are talking to constantly rolls her eyes or sighs every time you say something relating to your main points. In that case you might say:

“Hey, I’m sure this isn’t a comfortable conversation for you, would you rather stop?”

If the other person says yes, then you can say:

“That’s totally fine.”

This spares you the misery of putting up with rudeness and gives them a rest from being rude.

If the other person says that they would rather continue the conversation you might say:

“Okay. Cool. The only thing is, when you sigh and roll your eyes, I feel less likely to want to talk to you. I can totally understand that we see things differently, but this is becoming not so fun for me.” 

If you’re with me to this point, hopefully you’re not feeling totally hopeless. It is hard to elevate these conversations, especially when the other person might not give you much to work with. But as a small testimony, I have seen even the most angry of people back down when treated with kindness and respect. It’s worth a try every time. 

We have one more thing to talk about and that is finding common ground. 

I often hear the phrase “agree to disagree”. This is something you can use when you want to totally bail out of a conversation. But just like an eject button on an airplane, I would suggest using it sparingly. I would argue that more often than not, using the phrase “agree to disagree” does more harm than good. By saying it outloud you almost solidify it as fact, boxing the other person into their way of thinking. It makes it even harder to admit they can agree with you and might further entrench them. 

The truth is, our thoughts and opinions are quite flexible. So even if in a given moment, you disagree with someone, that may eventually change. So again, only use “agree to disagree” if you’re completely done with the conversation and you don’t care to pick it up later.

That leaves us looking for common ground that we can build on throughout the conversation. 

When a conversation is getting frustrating, I often take a step back and try focusing on the common ground. This gives everyone in the conversation a rest.

In fact, I have recently had conversations with several people about the Black Lives Matter movement and would like to share some of the common ground I found to build upon. 

  1. Most of us can agree that we don’t want police shooting people as a first response. This can help us build on what methods should be used first and then using that to discuss what policies and legal changes should be made so that police officers are far less likely to need to use their gun at all.
  2. In a recent conversion, we were able to agree it’s hard for police officers to quickly determine if a suspect is a “friend” or “foe”. Police are constantly dealing with the unsavory choices people make, which might cloud their judgement. We were able to acknowledge the problem of implicit biases and racial profiling. In a split second when a police officer might decide friend or foe — and they are operating on a faulty set of criteria — we have a big problem. 
  3. And that led to agreeing that Stereotypes are naturally faulty. We arrived at this common ground statement in stages. We started by talking about the stereotypes of men and women. Then we talked about some specific stereotypes that are wrong like, not all white guys with baggy pants are bad. Not all people with tattoos are evil. And not all black men wearing hoodies are up to no good. We started with the somewhat comfortable and then worked our way to the important points of the conversation.  
  4. This led to agreeing that we should all take a moment to inventory our biases. What things do we assume about other people? Other races? Other cultures? 

There is so much more to talk about and we have only just scratched the surface. But, we hope you will find opportunities to talk these issues through. The more we talk, the more we learn, the more we grow, the more we find meaningful solutions to these very real problems.

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