Have you tried to get a dynamic and thought-provoking discussion going with a diverse group of people? Every time you interact, virtually or in person, with someone with a different cultural background, you have the chance to open yourself up. It is like flipping a coin. You could become offended, confused, or dismissive. Or you can use that opportunity to learn something new. Whether you are in a Facebook group, Zoom call with your remote office, or in a challenging board meeting, a few principles can help create the conditions for a meaningful discussion instead of discord.
To begin understanding a different worldview and potentially reach shared positions, establishing a safe discussion environment is the first step. With a shared purpose, mutual trust, the desire to listen, and mindfulness skills, diverse groups of people can come together to improve their understanding of new perspectives.
Down Home in Georgia
My life is riddled with experiences in contrasting world views. I was a high school student in suburban Atlanta, Georgia when the twin towers were attacked during 9/11. My family is a Muslim part of the Indian diaspora. Although I do not identify as Muslim, I felt sympathy for those in my community experiencing Islamophobia or marginalization. In the tense times after that tragedy, I saw countless instances where people missed nuanced points of view. Anger cannibalized the ability to detect or understand nuance.
Since then, I have been paying attention to identifying the optimal moments to exchange perspectives. My practice of law and work in litigation clearly showed how expensive it is to fight in courts instead of finding common ground. My interest in community organizing, conflict resolution, and ultimately, even travel, is grounded in hearing ideas that are different from mine.
Nowadays the headlines announce climate change, racial injustice, and divided national politics. There seem to be countless topics that could antagonize us. The basic principles I started to learn in Georgia laid the groundwork for my toolkit in learning to hear another person’s perspective. With shared goals, a safe space to discuss, empathetic listening, and mindfulness, we have the basic ingredients for a meaningful discussion.
1. Solutions, not Reactions
Around June 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations went from an American concern to a global movement. In Tokyo, I became a moderator for the local BLM Facebook group. I shared a video of a prominent Atlanta-based rapper who consoled an angry crowd. People in Georgia were angry at years of abuse at the hands of police; they were ready to burn Atlanta again. The rapper reminded the crowd that they would not solve anything by burning down their own homes. He moved people’s attention, instead, towards a search for solutions. With his moving example, I called for any forum members who wanted to join me in discussing solutions. From there we started a smaller, informal discussion group. For the next six months, and onwards, we held regular discussions in which we talked through social justice solutions.
At the end of 2020, I proposed the idea of opening the group to new people. Our purely online discussion group had coalesced and formed its own sense of community. As we debated opening up to other people, we realized it would require an understanding of our implicit code of conduct. Our chat about our healthy group dynamics is where the idea for this article was born. Since then, I keep finding myself in the midst of great discussions where the objective is to seek solutions. Through this work, I’ve come to appreciate and identify the ingredients for a sincere, meaningful exchange of ideas. Beyond a search for solutions, we also must provide psychological safety, empathetic listening, and mindfulness within our group dialogues.
2. Fear Keeps People from Sharing
We started our discussion group with the knowledge that we do not know everything and cannot speak for everyone. As a group, we represented various passports, professions, and educational backgrounds. Together we sought an antidote to “cancel” culture. In our first group chat, I informally proposed that we be kind and patient with one another as we learn and grow in our search for solutions.
This established a critical baseline, the idea of psychological safety. We were not going to summarily shut someone down just for voicing an unpopular opinion. If someone is in an exploratory phase with certain ideas, they may be afraid their opinion will be seen as stupid or biased. A conversation in a psychologically safe discussion group can be a place to flesh out ideas.
People in a casual discussion are reluctant to fully share their thoughts because they are afraid that they will get chewed out for their opinion. If someone shares, “Most white people make me angry,” the speaker would very rightly be concerned that those words may be used against them out of context. When confronted with the prospect of an angry response, people shrink from their willingness to share. They do not want a fight just to feel understood. The labels of “racist” or not being “woke” enough carry a real social stigma. People are afraid their voices will be “canceled” if an idea is unacceptable. Furthermore, the biggest fear looming over anyone bold enough to share a controversial opinion is that they will be called a hypocrite if their perspective changes.
All of these concerns can be assuaged if people can be confident that they are sharing in a safe space. Ground rules for privacy and also for the style and tone we take with one another can ensure civility and a willingness to share.
3. Listen to Understand, Not to Reply
Early in our discussion group, as an exercise, we each took turns to share a moment that made us feel marginalized or dis-empowered. We listened to each other’s lived experiences and pain. For example, I shared how I felt in high school when someone casually informed me that non-Christians will inevitably go to hell. In turn, I also listened to the perspectives of a new immigrant facing racial discrimination in Canada.
This type of sharing was one of the greatest tools we employed in our discussions. In our sharing, we developed the capacity to listen empathetically. Instead of replying with justifications or excuses, listened with the purpose of understanding how that experience affected the speaker. We realized that empathy is a tool for good discussions.
If you are ever struggling to find a way to understand someone’s pain or sense of indignity, think of a time you felt wronged. Recall that feeling in a physical sense. Without intellectualization and justification, get in touch with how that moment felt in an emotional sense. Then, when you hear someone sharing their own pain, you can “call upon” your own feelings of that kind. At that moment, you have the potential to see how the world operates from another person’s perspective.
4. Apply Mindfulness
Using empathetic listening, and then building on that with mindfulness makes it possible to have a meaningful group discussion. The formal practice of meditation includes cultivating mindfulness. That tool is critical in good discussions as well.
A common mindfulness metaphor is to see our thoughts as a gushing stream or river. That stream often carries with it a constant flow of critiquing and judgmental thoughts. If we can be an observer on the banks of the stream of our thoughts, instead of judging, critiquing, or becoming offended by what someone else is saying, we can refocus our awareness on the other’s perspective. Doing so allows us the possibility of truly hearing what the other person is saying.
By curtailing your own thoughts, I mean that you put away your desire to be right. Keep a pulse on your own emotional reactions through mindfulness. While your own thoughts and feelings are a signal that something does not resonate, those observations can keep you from really listening, with ears and heart. By being mindful listeners, we can make the person across from us feel understood. When you have made some feel understood, you create the space for your own turn to share.
Every opportunity to engage with someone from a different background is a chance to learn. Having a curiosity about the reasoning behind another’s perspective starts from a place of mutual respect. While none of the above is new, I hope to see these kinds of meaningful discussions taking place more often. We close the door for understanding in discussions while we are angry or want to prove someone wrong. This attitude impedes our ability to understand motivations or have an exchange of ideas in dialogue.
If our objective is to vent or to prove that we are right, it won’t get us far. If, however, we are operating in a discussion to seek a certain common goal, and we are able to listen mindfully with our full hearts, there is enormous potential for mutual understanding. We all have the potential to build bridges and understand one another.
As online forums and Zoom meetings become the norm, the subtle cues of in-person, face-to-face interactions are unavailable. In times like these, using these dialogue tools becomes even more important. As our world gets closer and closer through globalization, travel, and technology, I hope varied groups online can apply these tools to nourish and join in on the many interesting discussions enjoyed in a pluralistic society.
*This is essay is a revision from my previous post on Medium.