During a discussion on why the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are leaving the UK, a university researcher in race and ethnicity tells a well known British actor that he speaks from a position of white privilege. The actor replies that she speaks from a position of racism.
All this happens on national television. A social media storm erupts shortly afterwards, sides are taken and outrage – a common symptom of our time – is profoundly expressed. Nothing actually gets resolved, and neither person advances in their understanding of the other.
Life is filled with discourse. Every day we are in conversation with ourselves, and with each other. We are all too familiar with these kinds of conversations taking place, whether the matter is diversity in the workplace or how to squeeze a tube of toothpaste. The real issue is rarely the matter being discussed. Instead, it lies hidden for as long as the conversation continues along the lines of a tit for tat that ends in name calling and bitter feelings. We remain none the wiser, and no closer to a solution. The resulting increase in polarisation of views hides the fact that the opposite camps may well have more common ground than difference.
The benefits of diversity in discourse
It is easy to live in social and intellectual isolation. In our social circle we can share our time and thoughts with people who think just like us. In our social media we can inhabit a bubble of like minded people who share and like each other’s like minded thoughts. We can even create work environments that are peopled with others, just like us. In the comfort of sameness, we excuse ourselves the effort of having to understand the other, or challenge our own self. And in this comfort, curiosity withers away.
But in return for the comfort of sameness, we also cut off the benefits of social and intellectual diversity. Diversity is Nature’s greatest strength, conferring resilience and our ability to adapt to change, which ensures our survival. Scientists, artists and other creatives have long known the beautiful alchemy that awaits those brave enough to combine ideas from seemingly unrelated fields. Combining opposites or near opposites is now recognised as a mainstream technique in boosting creativity.
So if we can find the confidence to really engage purposefully and constructively with those who are different, be that along lines of ethnicity, class, race, gender, age, experience, education, whatever it may be, we might just find the answers we need, instead of the ones that make us feel comfortable.
Making challenging dialogue easier
So how do we do this? How do we make challenging discourse meaningful?
Empathy with the other
First, we need to listen from a place of empathy and understanding of the other. We need to see the purpose of listening as the discovery of the other rather than the validation of the self. Often it is our own insecurities that prevent us from doing this.
Insecurity drives our need to be right, and to be right, the other person must be wrong: wrong to feel a certain way, wrong to look a certain way, wrong to hold the opinions that they do. It is a powerful defence, that protects us from taking responsibility for how we might feel if we were to stop and put ourselves in their position, and show empathy. In reality our need to be right keeps us separate, it isolates us from difference, and by default it separates us from contrast.
But how can we truly know if what we think or believe is valid, if we are unwilling to validate the experience of the other? There is value in moving past our fears, doubts and insecurities and opening ourselves up to a different way of seeing. It strengthens us, and it creates the space for solutions to reveal themselves.
Empathy with ourselves
Secondly, we need to listen from a place of empathy and understanding towards ourselves. Unless you are under physical threat, a heightened emotional response to someone’s words is likely to indicate that you are being triggered in some way. If you find yourself caught in the midst of a difficult conversation, be it in your personal or professional life, just stop, take a moment to check in with what you are experiencing, and what is happening in your body. If necessary turn you body at a slight angle to the person you are talking to and ask yourself, what part of my own pain and suffering is this conversation triggering? Try to imagine how they might be feeling.
Ask yourself, how can I see this person differently? Then just notice what happens as you use your breath to ground and centre yourself.
This is a simple yet effective life skill. It allows you to speak from a place of personal autonomy rather than from a place of being triggered. It lends authority to what you say next. Those who speak in a slow and considered manner garner greater respect. When we shout at the other person we have already lost control and no one really listens to a person who is not in control.
Look for common ground
Thirdly, look for the common ground. Even those on opposite sides of emotionally charged debates, such as arguments about race or gender diversity, have common ground: they both find the subject matter emotional.
Acknowledging the common ground allows us to find dialogue on a more stable platform of mutual respect and understanding, from which it can expand into more challenging territory. It opens the door to more resourceful questions and a curiosity about the other, which in turn leads us to something greater: understanding.
Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC are coaches and co-founders of the Libra Partnership, offering coaching and other performance enhancing services to lawyers, barristers, law firms and chambers.
The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.