The University of British Columbia has responsibility for and is committed to providing its students, staff and faculty with an environment dedicated to excellence, equity and mutual respect. Personal harassment and bullying are harmful to a respectful environment and therefore have no place at UBC.
Investing time in preparation sets the foundation for a thoughtful, empathic, and constructive dialogue.
1. Define your purpose
- Clarify your purpose and objectives. Define your needs and goals for the conversation, such as to resolve a conflict, gain understanding, or identify solutions to a problem.
- What other purposes might be informing your desire to enter into this conversation? Identifying underlying motivations allows you to adjust your approach towards a more constructive dialogue.
2. Identify your feelings
- Reflect on your thoughts and emotions. Be aware of any biases, assumptions, or judgments that may be informing your perspective of this situation or others involved. This self-awareness will help you approach the conversation with an open mind and in a non-confrontational way.
3. Consider different perspectives
- Reflect on the other person’s perspectives, experiences, and emotions. Think about what may be informing their opinions, behaviours, or concerns. This foresight, along with consideration of their potential reactions, will prepare you to adjust your approach to and within the conversation.
4. Gather information
- Collect relevant facts and information. Providing examples or information supporting your perspective helps ensure you’re ready to explain, explore or advocate for potential solutions. Avoid the trap of over-preparing – you aren’t building a case against the other person but ensuring that you’re presenting a robust and grounded perspective.
5. Choose the right time and place
- Choose or propose a mutually agreeable time and location. Timing and environment play a crucial role in the success of difficult conversations. Look for a private and neutral location where you can speak openly without interruption.
Being present, respectful, and adaptable within the conversation opens the possibility of broadening shared understanding, strengthening relationships, and working towards mutually beneficial outcomes. Use the following tips to maintain empathic communication and a collaborative mindset.
- Practice active listening, instead of thinking only about what you are waiting to say next.
- Speak for yourself, and let others speak for themselves.
- Instead of putting words in another person’s mouth, ask the other person to clarify: “What did you mean?”
- Try asking genuine questions, rather than only rhetorical questions.
- Seek a fulsome understanding of the other person’s point of view. Sometimes disagreement is based on an incomplete or misunderstanding of the another’s actual point of view.
- Respond to the thread of a conversation before starting a new thread. Building on ideas enables a dialogue to go deeper.
- Practice the ability to disagree with an idea without attacking the speaker.
- Belittling, humiliating comments are major impediments to dialogue.
- Try to avoid “conformity bias” and “group-think.”
- Avoid cutting off dialogue prematurely, but consider taking a break to lower the temperature.
- Pay attention to sharing speaking time and not repeating ideas.
- Everyone shares responsibility for a productive dialogue, even if there is a designated “facilitator.”
- Be aware of and attend to how your emotional responses may be experienced or perceived by the other party.
Be Mindful of Your Words
- Analogies and metaphors can be helpful but are never perfect.
- Oversimplifying complex issues can aggravate and deepen differences.
- Highly inflammatory language can cause people to stop listening.
- Generalizing formulations about an individual or a group of people, such as “you always…” or “all __ think that…” are probably untrue.
- Lengthy speeches or monologues are antithetical to productive dialogue.
Recognize Diversity and Practice Inclusion
- Communication styles are not uniform; these differences might be socially conditioned, such as physical proximity, volume of speech or pauses.
- Sharing a language does not always mean equivalent levels of fluency.
- Words convey different meanings to different individuals, even when they share a common language. Try asking: “How are you using the word ___?”
- Because ideas from multiple perspectives and knowledge domains can deepen and broaden understanding of complex issues, seek to make connections between diverse ideas.
- Consider, offer, or develop shared boundaries for and within the conversation.
Helpful conversation starters
- “Do you have a moment? I’d like to discuss something with you.”
- “Hey, can we chat about <short neutral topic description>? I’d like to hear more about the perspective you raised.”
- “I’d really appreciate a debrief about what just happened. Do you have some time to talk?”
- “I might be wrong, but I think we hold different perspectives about ____________… can we continue this discussion to better understand each other?
- “I feel like we’ve returned to a similar conversation about __________ a few times now. I’m interested in why this might be happening – would you be up for exploring this with me?”
The aftermath of a difficult conversation can provide a valuable opportunity to gain insight into your relationship with the topics and perspectives at hand, gaining insight and learning to help inform your next steps. Taking time to practice self-care, self-compassion, and self-reflection can support deep learning and personal growth.
- What did I learn in this conversation?
- How can I apply this newfound knowledge – are there specific actions to take or area to explore?
- What were the most challenging aspects of this conversation? How can I manage this differently next time?
UBC Resources and Supports for Respectful Debate (pdf)
Respectful Dialogue and Debate: Principles and Practices (pdf)