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How do you respond to a person who challenges you with an honestly heartfelt but narrowly bigoted statement? The problem is that if you directly challenge them they will declare you an enemy and fight you at every point. Even blandly presenting factual information in response to their outrageous claims will prove counterproductive because they will twist the facts to prove the correctness of their assertions. If there is any hope of bringing them closer to what we see as objective reality, it must begin with a statement of how much you understand their concern and their depth of feeling. It is a good idea to restate their position and how disturbed that makes you feel, which helps them understand you heard what they said but also helps you verify what it is they are saying and how they are feeling.

You might begin by saying, for example, how uncomfortable it must be to be forced to trust someone with whom you feel there is a fundamental difference in world view. After you have said something like that, wait a bit to verify they are understanding your empathy. They may give some clarifications, and you should try to understand and empathize with these also. Until you establish a trusting relationship with someone you can not have a conversation in which you both progress to a mutual understanding.

Not being understood leads to the conversation being shut down, and that goes both ways. This can easily happen even when there is a moderator controlling the group, who has the agreed upon authority to control the conversation, but gets distracted and loses the meaningful flow of the statements. This has happened to me countless times, both in one-to-one conversations and when in a group. It is probably because of my speaking style, which tends to be exuberant. Where this failure of style becomes obvious is when comparing it to some other person is granted considerable time to ramble through some un-thought-out problem until they either get bored themselves and stop or perhaps hit on something interesting and then stop because they were interrupted.

I suspect my problem is that I have interesting ideas, and an interesting idea being understood leads to being interrupted. That is okay in a one-on-one conversation, because it usually comes back to the main point of the discussion. Unfortunately, with an insertion of the abstract idea to a group it can easily devolve to a further degeneration and drifting away to easier more commonly understood ideas. A truly new idea tends to get diffused with each new comment until it is diluted so much it is lost and forgotten. Therefore, it is important to take notes on new ideas, so it can be recalled and reintroduced with improvements. Personal criticism and new ideas are difficult things to remember. Criticism because our whole mental process is to suppress ideas which degrade our self image, and new ideas because there is little to associate them with and attach them to in our mind.

Excited and emotional talk about a new idea is easily interrupted because it stirs the feelings and thoughts in other people and makes them want to talk. Talking in a flat emotionless tone leaves the other people in a flat emotional space, and in that condition they don’t have much inclination to speak up themselves. Thus, if you have an idea which will take some time for development be sure to talk in a flat tone. Use a tone that makes it seem that the answer is about to come into view and be revealed.

Each of these different interpersonal situations requires a different approach, but all conversation depends upon all of the people developing a feeling of trust, and that depends on understanding the words the other person is saying and empathizing with the emotions they are feeling. We all want to be understood.

“It feels so good when we’re understood.”