The 5-steps to Adult Conversation

(Originally published at
Today’s conversation has been stunted and, in some cases, stalled. What can we do to alleviate? Believe it or not, breathe.

There’s a real problem in U.S. discourse. But then, who am I to complain? I’m a communications professional, that’s who. I have noted a troubling trend that has been exacerbated more so in politics, lately, than any other arena. I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I say we’ve morphed into a black and white world. What do I mean? A world truncated from a multitude of opinions to only two sides allowed.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a diatribe about who’s in office or what stance we should take. Quite the opposite — if I may say so tongue in cheek.

We live in a multicolor, multifaceted world. The human eye can detect up to 10 million colors — each unique, each different. Yes! 10 million. But let’s stick to the monochrome example. Despite the latest fan-fiction movie, the human eye can detect 30 distinct shades of grey. Plus, according to Popular Science and other publications, electronically we can generate up to 450 shades of the monochromatic hue. Think of each hue as a unique perspective on whatever issue you are espousing — politics, investments, technology, you name it.

The Stunted Conversation

But what does that have to do with the national discourse? Simply put, thinking in black and white alone stunts our conversations. We live in a 360°, three-dimensional world with more than 10 million colors and 450 shades of grey. Why limit our conversations to two colors — or to be specific two values. Black being the absence of all colors and white being the presence of all colors?

The limit is artificial. There I said it.

It’s further limited by how you choose to respond. Twitter? 140 characters. Text? Facebook? In person or on the phone? Each provides its own limitations.

The Truth in Middle

I credit this artificial boundary to the lack of respect, openness and acceptance we show each other — not so much to the platform you choose.

It seems like if you don’t agree with my every opinion, you are dead to me. Really. Think about how many discussions you’ve had where either you’ve emphatically told someone they are wrong, or worse, you’ve been told you are wrong. Here’s the rub: either case is not correct. I would bet that there is a kernel of truth in both sides of whatever argument you were having. A wise HR director once told me, “There’s his side. There’s your side. Somewhere in the middle is the truth.”

Going back to our monochromatic example. If we can discern 30 shades of grey, why limit the discussion to black or white, right or wrong? Why not look at all facets of an issue. Why not look at the issue from your opponent’s viewpoint to discern and practice a bit of empathy? My guess is one of two reasons — one: you want to prove you are smarter than the average bear (sorry Yogi) or two: you want to position yourself as dominant. Congratulations! You either prove that you are average or that you are not secure in your own opinion. (Oops I just illustrated the black and white of it all.)

Same Facts, Different Filters

We may see up to 30 shades of grey, but each issue has a multitude of shades and facets — beyond what the human eye discerns. Each issue has a plethora of facts and figures to illustrate our unique points of view. We see that in our daily news coverage. Most of us get “spun up” by opinion writers and analysts — those who are invited on programming to state their opinions and cherry pick which facts to magnify. We get distracted from the news coverage which, by practice, strives to present all sides of story. Reporters are known to write that a story subject did not return a call to let us know that they at least tried to get all sides.

News coverage, while focused on the dramatic or exciting or newsworthy aspects of a story, is not as titillating as watching the ever-present expert panels on cable TV. You know what I’m talking about. The juxtaposition of a liberal or conservative analyst — not journalist, mind you — with a news anchor to parse a news story by every angle possible in their limited black and white views. Many times, they are talking over each other, not hearing the full response and not realizing they are shrieking out the same facts under different filters. It can be downright embarrassing to see our national opinion leaders shrink to this level of “non-listening” pleasure.

Be the Change: Breathe

So how do we change the cacophony of the U.S. discourse? One person at a time. We must:

1. Practice listening to our conversation partners and allowing them to finish their thought.

2. Learn to respect each other for our unique opinions.

3. Discern what is our opinion versus those of our respected leaders.

4. Honor our friends, colleagues, family and cohorts who have differing points of view.

5. Protect our right to think for ourselves.

This may seem like a dream list, but it’s not. It’s a practical response to today’s argumentative, limiting world of conversation. Something to keep in mind — you only have one thing that you are totally in control of — that’s how you react. So what can you do?

It takes on simple action to begin. Breathe. In the time it takes to take a deep breath, you allow yourself that moment to decide how you want to respond to an inquiry or statement. You can react, you can formulate a bridge to your deliberate response, you can espouse research or you can choose to ignore the information.

It’s in your choice on how to respond that you can position yourself as an independent thinker, a well-positioned leader or simply a messenger. All roles are perfectly respectable.

Welcome to the world of adult conversation.

Download: Three Magic Questions to Instantly Improve Communications