Creating Healthy Dialogue on Difficult Topics    

(Photo by Selma Komisky)

By Amber Johnson

Creating Healthy Dialogue on Difficult Topics                       

“Understand this my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”

– James 1:19

“Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

– John 13:35

It was a few short days after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer when our young neighbor approached me.

“I’m angry,” he said. “I have some things I’d like to talk to your husband about if he’s available.”

Knowing that my husband was a police officer, I was impressed by this young man’s initiative to come over and have an in-person conversation.

Our family had continued to be stressed and taxed by the pressure and attack on police that ensued after the horrible incident. The attack on the character of all law enforcement seemed to quickly permeate through our nation.

Fear quickly gripped our household. I wish I could say I’ve been handling it well, but it’s been an immense struggle on top of COVID-19. I have had to turn over my anxiety daily to God and seek help for our family in these difficult times.

I know my husband is in this profession to make a positive change and keep the community safe, but it’s an extremely demanding career. I wish more people would willingly sit down and talk with an officer or their family to learn about the stresses and dynamics of the job.

And our neighbor did just that.

I was grateful this young man, who was rightfully angry, took the time to talk to a police officer about the incident. His heart was in the right place- to seek information, find answers, and create change.

With the small amount of free time that my husband did have, he was willing to speak with our neighbor. Not only that, he gave this young man his phone number. My husband welcomed him to ask questions or contact him if he wanted to discuss the topic further.

Just two days after their initial conversation, this young man told my husband he really appreciated speaking with him. It actually prevented him from making some very destructive decisions, and it encouraged him to join a sit-in with our local mayor and get involved with community organizations.

Change and positive action started with one simple conversation. I’m certain that the impact of that conversation is far beyond what can be measured.

After my husband’s initial conversation, I was inspired to step up and create more healthy dialogue on the difficult topics of racism and police brutality. I wanted to hear from people who had different experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds. Looking initially to social media, I quickly found that there was too much noise and not a whole lot of genuine conversation.

How do we have genuine, healthy conversations with people on difficult topics? It takes deliberate action, stepping outside of our comfort zones, and sitting down with real people.

Get Off the Screens

I would encourage and challenge anyone who wants to have a true, healthy dialogue to step away from the screens. Meet with someone in person even if that means social distancing in an open area. If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, set up a face-to-face conversation through Skype, Zoom, or Google Meet.

Have Ears to Hear

Pray for a humble heart and open ears. Recognize that pride often gets in the way of actually understanding another person’s perspective.

When we choose to listen first, we’re not only trying to understand someone else’s perspective, but we’re showing that person that he or she is valued. We care about what that person has to say.

It doesn’t mean we have to agree or that our thoughts and opinions don’t matter. We’re simply choosing to see this person as an individual with different experiences than our own.

Listening is NOT about “trying to fix” something. Our presence and open ears can mean so much to someone.

Empathize & Validate

When someone is sharing their experiences or perspective on an issue, it’s important that we attempt to put ourselves in that person’s shoes. How would we feel or react in those circumstances? Maybe we don’t know how we’d feel or react because we’ve never had the same experiences, but we can at least choose to try and understand and validate how another person is feeling and their experiences.

Encourage & Challenge

When we don’t agree, it’s okay to share that disagreement. Be respectful and loving with your words. We can do that without name calling and choosing to respond in a humble and graceful way.

If someone is choosing to name-call or criticize you as a person, acknowledge the hurt to this individual and tell the person you’d prefer to discuss this topic at another time in a more respectful manner. It’s okay to step away.

If we’re having a respectful disagreement with someone, we can encourage the individual to ask questions, look into an alternative argument, and talk to others with different backgrounds and experiences.

Continue the Conversation

Leave the conversation open-ended. Maybe you pass along your phone number, e-mail, or agree to meet another time after taking a break from the difficult topic. Most difficult topics are complicated and deserve the time, energy, and research to evaluate other’s perspectives.

Sometimes the initial conversation may just be listening to the other person. You may then need to take the time to process and come back later with your own thoughts, questions, and opinions on the topic discussed. Either way, it’s valuable to leave the conversation open.

Most importantly, let the other person know that you truly care about him or her, regardless of whether you agree or disagree on a subject matter. This person still matters to you no matter what.

In the end, we must remember the goal of our conversation is not “to win” an argument, the goal is to “love others well”. We must remember that God is after peoples’ hearts regardless of the outcome of a conversation on a difficult topic.

How we relay our message matters.

“Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.”

– Colossians 4:5

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