While watching an endless loop of depressing headlines the other day, my attention was interrupted by a public service announcement about an organization that promotes conversations about mental illness. The organization, seizetheawkward.org, offers helpful tips about how to have conversations with those you suspect might be suffering from an emotional crisis or more long-term mental illness.
In a week where at least two mass shootings occurred in California—for reasons that seem very different—this promotional spot addresses a prescient issue. In a society where the dominant means of communication is often on-line algorithms that prompt us to spiral further and further into rabbit holes untethered to reality, our already fragile 21st-century psyches can be pushed to the breaking point. Kellie Colunga writes in Viewpoint, “In today’s age of data tracking, each like or click provides search engines and social media sites with information about the kinds of things we like and then works to provide us with more of the same, further insulating us from news or opinions we don’t want to see.”
Recognizing the signs of mental illness (which, admittedly, can be easily disguised or deflected) is an important task in breaking out of our social media silos and taking responsibility for one another. But we need not limit ourselves to discussions of mental illness or mass shootings. Sometimes, day-to-day living demands courageous conversations. The question can be asked: “how do I begin a conversation about a difficult issue and, as importantly, how do I sustain the conversation in a constructive way?”
Early in my career as a local pastor, this was often a question I needed to consider. And, later, as my work centered on bringing people together across lines of difference, many of the principles that applied to individuals also applied to bridging painful or even hostile divides in our society in order to forge a course of action acceptable to different viewpoints.
But first, simply starting the conversation is essential. Then, once the conversation has begun, I have found the following five principles to be helpful in sustaining the dialogue in the hope of achieving breakthrough understandings:
Create Intersections, Not Boundaries: It can be counterproductive to begin talking about a difficult conversation with the heart of the matter in dispute. Rather, start with something about which you can agree. “Small talk” can be valuable. Find something you have in common—family, sports, the weather—focus on those elements—however small they may seem—and try to build on them.
Listen: No. Really listen to what the other is saying. But don’t just hear their words. Be attentive to their expression, their body language, even their moments of silence. Find your beginning point by trying to understand what they have to say.
Be Genuine: People can usually tell when you are faking it. So, be real. If you don’t have an answer, admit it. And if your value system or understanding of the situation causes you to truly disagree, avoid declaring that the other is “wrong.” You might say, instead, “my experience is a little different” or “setting alongside what you’ve said…”
Continue Talking: You can never tell how far into a conversation you need to go to find convergence, so try not to shut off conversation prematurely. If things get tense, return to the first principle, and focus on your commonalities.
Treat Potentially Volatile Situations with Tenderness: Even when we try, it is difficult to walk in another’s shoes. We just don’t always know why there are strong feelings in an opposing point of view. Therefore, striving to understand what the other person may be experiencing means being open to levels of empathy beyond the mere “facts” of the case.
Mental illness is a profound tragedy in our society today that has only been exacerbated by the divisions among us and access to the technology that can exploit those differences. It is important for each of us to navigate these treacherous waters by taking the initiative to reach out and to offer patience and understanding in the words that we share.