Friday, May 5, 2017

What I learned from arguing with a pig farmer

Recently I was invited to preach at a church near me about the importance of creation care. I carefully crafted a sermon that I thought was equal parts faithful, educational, and challenging. Though I was terrified for my first preaching experience, I thought it went well. At the very least I didn't die of embarrassment or pass out from nerves. I received positive feedback on my appearance (that's a blog post for another day), my speaking voice, and my message. I was thanked for my work and for teaching the congregation something new. Several people pledged to increase their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. It was an encouraging day.

A few days went by and I received a phone call from one of the pastors. It seems one of the members of the congregation was enraged by my message and the pastor thought he was in need of  a follow up. So I gave him a call.

What happened next was perhaps the most formative experience I've had to date about how to have a difficult or emotionally-charged conversation with someone with which you disagree. Here's what I learned:

1. Listening to understand and listening to formulate a response are not the same thing.
I like to debate, and I like to win. But when you're trying to form or maintain relationships with people, you need to suspend this desire. The best thing I could do in this situation was to make sure the person felt heard. So I listened. This can be disarming to the person you're disagreeing with, because they're not expecting this grace.

I took time to let the pig farmer explain why he was so angry. I didn't interrupt. As it turned out, he wasn't even sure why he was angry. So I was able to ask some clarifying questions to direct our conversation.

2. How you say what you say matters.
I like to be right. And I felt deep-down that this gentleman was wrong. But instead of using a sarcastic tone or superior attitude, I remembered that he deserves the same respect and grace I do. I recently watched a Ted Talk by Sally Kohn in which she said, "You can be politically right but emotionally wrong". Your tone, attitude, eye contact, and body language can determine the outcome of a disagreement just as much as your words can.

My desire was to build a bridge with the pig farmer, not to win a match. And because this was technically a work interaction, I stayed in professional-mode. I gave him the benefit of the doubt--maybe he was having a tough day personally or professionally. Perhaps he was caught off guard that I actually called to talk and he was unprepared for such a conversation.  

3. Ask, "Why do you feel that way?"
In a recent episode of Ana Marie Cox's podcast With Friends Like These she talked about putting on her journalist hat during difficult discussions. She said that asking this question often shifted the tone of the conversation because a person stopped defending ideas and started embracing feelings. This can dramatically change the conversation. It can also yield important reasons why a person holds a particular view: a painful event from his/her childhood, a anecdote from a friend or family member, a deeply held fear. The listener can then begin to feel compassion for the person and perhaps see where this person is coming from in a new way. 

I asked the pig farmer this question late in our conversation. I should have started here. Some of the most useful parts of our conversation came from this line of questioning. I could hear the pain in his voice as he explained how difficult it is to make a profit in his industry and how a changing world and economy terrified him. It was then that I saw him as a real human person and not a stereotype.

4. Restate/explain/clarify your position
People hear things wrong. People connect dots that you don't intend for them to connect. So you may need to say, "let me make sure I understand what you're saying."

It turns out the the pig farmer has misheard me. He was so worked up about something I said early in the sermon that he missed an important connecting point later in my message. I offered to email him my manuscript. He declined, but I was glad I could offer that clarification.

5. Acknowledge that you both have rational, valid points even if you disagree.
This is perhaps the place where relationships are made or broken. Even if we disagree on a topic, we might have the same end goal in mind. We may each have a different vision of how to achieve these goals, and that is OK. It's important to find what we have in common and end on a positive note.

I discovered through our conversation that the pig farmer wanted to be more sustainable but that it wasn't always possible because of regulations or budget. But he listed several things he does at his farm to try to tread lighter on the earth. I do whatever I can to reduce my impact on the planet, too. I go about it a different way than he does, but we both are doing what we can. That's common ground. That's relationship building.

I've not spoken to the pig farmer again, but I am grateful for the lessons I learned from our conversation. And I'm hopeful that I could learn more about his industry and build a relationship with him in the future, as I have space in my friend list for a pig farmer.

So, how do you have difficult conversations? What would you add to this list?