One of the many pieces of advice that I have heard about choosing a (hopefully) lifelong partner is “to find someone you can talk to.” I have come to realize that “talking” does not mean chatting about the weather, although, in Minnesota, that is a fruitful topic. Rather, I am being instructed to find someone with genuine interest in thoughtful discussion about the things that matter to me. However, the topics that matter are the ones I am most passionate about and thus those I often feel personally threatened when someone disagrees with me.
In my relationship with my significant other, I have learned a few things about how to have a real conversation, especially about social justice issues, and I have unabashedly used him (and many of my other friends) as a guinea pig to test some of the things I have picked up from other places. I am sharing some of those lessons in the hopes that it will help members of the readership to be able to discuss issues and brainstorm solutions with people who do not always agree.
1. Emotional correctness
During one discussion, my partner asked, “Have you realized that you take lllllllloooooooonnnnnngggggg pauses in conversation? As in 60 seconds long?”
My initial response was to say, “I do not!” But pausing – hah! – I realized that I very much did take long pauses. I realized I did so because I was trying to formulate a way to state things that would get him to listen to me rather than get defensive or dismissive. I would often be thinking of and discarding multiple phrasings before settling on one that I thought most likely to elicit a productive response. So why did I feel that the other phrasings would make other people angry or defensive?
I found the answer from Sally Kohn, a self-proclaimed “progressive, lesbian talking head on Fox News,” who, during a TED talk in 2013, discussed “emotional correctness.” Emotional correctness is feeling compassion and empathy for the person you are conversing with, which is reflected in the language you use. Essentially, emotional incorrectness is dismissing someone immediately or treating him/her with disdain because you do not agree with their expressed opinion. Emotional correctness is important because treating someone as you wish to be treated (i.e., with respect, which includes thoughtful listening) is a good way to gain their respect and make an emotional connection.
Why are emotional connections important? When I am not emotionally correct – that does not mean agreement – I have noticed that often my significant other becomes defensive, and the discussion is rarely productive. In contrast, emotionally correct language often produces useful insights and even led to brainstorming and solutions to support women, especially in our graduate program.
2. “Gray areas”
“I get it, okay – the white guy is always wrong!”
When my significant other resignedly made this statement the other night, I realized that social justice is not often a dichotomy. Not all the laws and customs are “right,” but not all are “wrong.” To go further, not all solutions posited by scholars are “right,” and not all are wrong. Often, I and, I think, others make the mistake of speaking only of what is wrong and giving the impression that we only are right. But to change the world, we need to first engage with people who do not initially agree with us. One way to start is emotional correctness, as explained under the first bullet point. The second is to realize that each person is different. For some, emphasizing only what is wrong makes the person we are talking to feel complicit and makes them defensive, which is what I realized had happened in the discussion above. So I stopped and started again with an honest compliment. Then I talked about what was working. Then I moved on to what we needed to change. And my significant other listened.
A month or two ago, I attended a lecture at the University that I was particularly excited about. Unfortunately, about two sentences in, I realized I could not understand the speaker. I had never heard the terms referencing theories and courses of action in a certain social justice field being dropped in every sentence. It quickly became one of the most uncomfortable hours I have spent at the university because – watching the scholars around me nod along – made me realize how much of an outsider I was. I had no way to connect to what the speaker was saying and to try to feel empathy with the other members of the audience – because I did not understand what was going on! In addition to giving me empathy for people having to listen to “more educated” people talking down, it emphasized the importance of framing the discussion in terms of words that people can actually understand or, at least, giving definitions that people can understand.
As I have learned, relationships are challenging. Conflict requires much attention and energy from both sides to be involved. And conflict with significant others adds additional stress. As stressful as conflict can be, however, I have learned so much from having those discussions, and I hope you will too.