Skills to keep in mind for navigating controversial conversations

We can all become better listeners

  • Our educational system is derived from a Eurocentric system which values, the thoughts and opinions and life experiences of those who are in dominant positions in society. We have learned that some people’s stories and life experiences matter and some don’t.
  • Examine your position and whether you always assume people will be interested in what you have to say (based on your racialized background, gender, class background, age, sexual orientation, nationality, language) or you never have that expectation.
  • Notice how often you insert yourself into a conversation, interrupt or speak first in your interactions.

Listening is to gain understanding.

Listening does not equal condoning

Listening does not equal agreeing.

Listening does not equal compromising your beliefs.

Listening = valuing and understanding.

“One of the sincerest forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” Steven Covey

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Steven Covey

When we are engaged in conversation, we have been trained to think about opposing arguments.  Someone gives their opinion and while they are talking, we are planning our response.

  • Listen to position of person.
  • Listen beyond what feels bearable.
  • Ask a question that will try to reach for understanding why this is so important to them. (Is there a personal story that led you to hold this position?)

A mistake we often make is we feel so urgent that our position be understood that we assume everything has to be solved and shifted in one conversation. 

Our goal is to reach for the person behind the position. 

Find an entry point to engage that is based on curiosity and real interest without the agenda of changing the person.

We are training for the long haul, especially with colleagues, family and community members.  This is about building something authentic where we can find common ground so we can work toward moving issues and policies forward as well as building and strengthening relationships.

Culture of shaming – the only thing that shaming accomplishes is we either we get the person to shut up in the moment, and they look for somewhere else to spew their offensive remarks or they become combative, and the conflict escalates.

When do we use these skills? 

When we have a long-lasting relationship and want to maintain and build bridges to greater understanding,

When we a share common goal and want to have civil conversations to create path forward even when there are points of disagreement.

We may NOT be able to reach everyone. 

There may be people or groups that you don’t have the attention to listen to – YET.

Start small and recognize and celebrate every time you can shift the interaction forward.  (This is part of the muscle building process. We are more likely to keep trying when we experience success.)

Stephanie Low

The National Coalition Building Institute (

Evolution, LLC, consultant

[email protected]