Opinion: How to Have Constructive Conversations

I would like to start this post off with a caveat. Our views and opinions are formulated by our life experiences. Therefore, I would like to note that the following opinions regarding navigating hard topics are based solely on my own experience. Difficult conversations are exactly that: difficult. If they were easy, I doubt we would dread having them. On the other hand, tough conversations are often necessary.

In college, professors may challenge you to write a paper about a topic you don’t personally believe in. For your own sanity, try to remember that the point of the task is to successfully argue the topic as objectively as possible (i.e. save your opinions for twitter…or blog posts, like this one). Inserting a personal opinion, rather than sticking to objective facts, could potentially dilute the over-all argument or you may unintentionally offend the reader.  

Aside from papers, professors also use class time as an opportunity for discussion. In my experience, discussions are often opinion-based. This can be intimidating because you are surrounded by highly educated people who have strong opinions and they aren’t afraid to voice them. Just like the papers, this is a challenge, an opportunity. Whether you realize it or not, class discussions equip you with the building blocks necessary to broach difficult topics.

These skills are not tested the same way in the military. As indoctrinated service members, we are direct and to the point. We say what we mean and we mean what we say, regardless of feelings or circumstance. We know how to disagree- sometimes not respectfully- and still come together to get the job done so we can all go home. The academic world is NOT like this. I had to throw out what I knew and re-learn how to have tough- but constructive- conversations. I have compiled the following tips to help you with the re-learning process.

First, I think it is important to learn my audience’s values. People’s belief systems are influenced by their background, religion, values, circumstances, and education, etc. It can be difficult to know why a person believes something or how they came to their conclusions. When I was in the military having conversations about difficult issues just seemed easier. For the most part, I could assume I knew where everyone else stood in a larger context, or at a minimum, I knew we shared common core values. Now, I don’t assume that others hold or even agree with my values. I try to gain an understanding first, find a way to relate to them, before broaching a challenging topic.

Second, outside of the military, no one forces you to believe in their “core values”. Even though people join the military from all walks of life and for all different reasons, each branch aims for members- through Bootcamp or other basic training schools- to embody a specific sets of values and beliefs. This is because human lives are on the line, always. If you don’t stand your watch, if you don’t do that maintenance, if you don’t conduct a proper turnover, it is possible that someone, somewhere, sometime down the line might die because of your actions. This is not the case in a university. No one forces you to believe or pretend to believe something, because, for the most part, human lives are not directly affected by the personal beliefs of the people who attend the school. Universities encourage questions, critical thinking, and challenging us to do better. When conversations don’t go the way I want them to, I try to remember that the stakes are lower in an academic setting. I’m here to learn and I’m the only person who can get in the way of my goals.

Third, I seek to understand exactly what is expected of me. In the military intelligence field, I was lucky in that I was encouraged to ask questions and could disagree with ideas without repercussions. That was not the experience for many of my contemporaries. They were not expected to ask leaders follow-up questions after they were given orders. In fact, follow-up questions where discouraged. Now, I encourage you to ask for clarification any time you aren’t sure of something. If you didn’t quite understand someone’s reasoning behind their statements, ask if they can re-frame their explanation in a different way. Ask them to help you better understand their point in relation to the topic of conversation. Follow-up questions indicate an interest in actually learning about the topic or other person’s views.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that right now there are a lot of difficult conversations happening across America. I find it difficult and intimidating to engage in these conversations because for much of my adult life I was a part of an organization, the United States Navy, which conformed to a specific set of values. I don’t think that these values kept racism, homophobia, sexism, or hatred from existing or affecting military members’ lives, but those values did force us to talk about difficult issues. When I talked about these topics in the military I felt it was safe to expose my ignorance, because we were all on the same team, wearing the same uniform, forced to mop the same floors. At university, it is hard to feel like we are all on the same team. I propose that one way we can try to overcome these feelings of difference is to learn to have constructive conversations and talk about the hard things. We are all here for one mission: to better ourselves through learning and its much easier if you don’t go it alone.