Sandy Spring Friends School



Navigating Difficult Conversations: 7 Tips for Civic Engagement Discussions

Navigating Difficult Conversations: 7 Tips for Civic Engagement Discussions

There is a lot to examine and process regarding the events in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021. However, one thing was immediately apparent: the disturbing actions taken at the U.S. Capitol were beyond the role of civic engagement through political protest. They did not model an appropriate response to a disagreement. 

Individuals from both sides of the aisle came together to condemn the U.S. Capitol breach; nevertheless, there remains a very real division between both political parties that reflects a divide within our communities, our extended families, and even our homes. To "keep the peace," these topics are left off the list of possible talking points, but the division—and tension—remains. How does one face the stress and engage in difficult conversations, especially when there is a high likelihood of disagreement? Nicole Lee, Interim Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and our Civic Engagement committee established a list of community norms and skills that support civility in these types of conversations, some of which were directly inspired by the Friends Council on Education and the Glasgow Group.  

These seven norms and skills can act as a guide when engaging in your own difficult conversations:

1. Listen to, understand, and reflect before responding.

"In conversations about issues that are very important, or are very charged, we have a flight, fight, or freeze response. It's a response where we are physically ready to act, but we are not as emotionally prepared to really understand and be in deep communication," says Nicole. To combat the fight, flight, or freeze response, Nicole suggests finding ways to calm down by remembering that our safety is not at risk. "We need to remember that even in a contentious conversation, we are actually still safe. The more we can think about that fact, the more likely we will be able to not only calm ourselves but calm the conversation and produce that deep listening that we need in order to communicate." 

2. Speak from the "I" perspective. 

"Communication is not just the words, but it's also how people feel they are treated in the interaction," says Nicole. "Often, conflicting conversations occur because we assume what other people will feel, believe, or think."  Additionally, stating something as fact rather than using the "I” perspective can alienate others when their experiences do not match our own. "When we speak from our own personal perspective, we are not only taking ownership of what we believe, but we're also allowing room and space for other people to be who they are."

3. Model and make room for authenticity. 

Being authentic in a conversation can allow for a high-stress contentious argument to turn into a calmer, open dialogue. Modeling authenticity can include admitting to areas of oversight or deficiencies in our knowledge or sharing when we're uncomfortable with a point of view. "When we do that, we allow space for there to be more creative thinking and more collaborative thinking," says Nicole. "By modeling authenticity, that allows other people in the conversation to do the same thing. And that's where we get into a more creative dialogue, versus a conversation in which one person must win an argument and one person must lose an argument."

4. Expand your capacity to honor multiple perspectives by challenging the ideas of others, and accepting challenges to your own ideas, with grace and civility aimed at clarity.

In today's climate, political and personal opinions are often intertwined, making conversations around civic engagement that much more critical and challenging. "When we're talking about honoring multiple perspectives, we have to understand that we all come from very different experiences and that we may have a closer proximity to the issues being discussed," says Nicole. She suggests setting up group agreements where possible to keep grace and civility intact. These agreements can help everyone enter the conversation with an awareness that they may be talking about people's identities, not just their beliefs.

5. Question, discern, and question more, allowing for continuing revelation.

Nicole encourages us to "question our assumptions and the belief that our personal experiences are universal," and to embrace the idea that "we are all in process. We don't know everything." When entering a conversation, Nicole suggests we should also be mindful not to disguise our opinions as questions. Instead, our questions -- to others and ourselves-- need to be authentic. "For our questions to other people to be authentic, we have to be in the mode of questioning ourselves," says Nicole. "We have to value being lifelong learners in all things, and see that in ourselves personally."

6. Accept discomfort as an important part of the learning process. 

"Every day we asked our children to go into the classroom and have a learner's mind, and to allow for correction and growth," says Nicole. "As adults, we avoid that like the plague." Nicole suggests that people have to be willing to be vulnerable and sit in discomfort to have a successful dialogue. "You just need to get used to the idea that it's not all about comfort," says Nicole. "You should be willing to have a moment where you cannot be assured you are right."

7. Assume positive intent while addressing negative impact. 

"I think what this really gets at is, until we know otherwise, it's helpful to assume that the person we're speaking with does not mean us harm," Nicole says. "And that a real, authentic conversation with them, about our concerns, will reap a benefit." By operating from this assumption, it opens the door for authenticity, healthy and helpful discomfort, and continued grace and civility. Assuming positive intent does not mean we can shy away from the discomfort or that we must refrain from calling out injustices. " does mean that we speak our truth and allow for that person's humanity to still be affirmed," says Nicole.

Engaging in difficult conversations while operating from these norms and skills can help support civility but does not necessarily ease the tension. However, there's a cost to avoiding the stress. "What we see in today's society is the impact of not having civil conversations that follow these norms," says Nicole.

When we can communicate across differences under these norms, we can see the benefits in our political system, our communities, our families, and even ourselves. "The more we're able to have these types of conversations, the more we will not only understand but be understood," says Nicole. "We'll be able to come up with collaborative solutions for our community and our society that, frankly, would not be available to us as individuals. These solutions can only be found in a collective, in community."

In October 2020, Sandy Spring Friends School released a booklet entitled "SSFS Guidelines for Civic Engagement" which focused on helping all community members civilly engage with one another to discuss topics around politics and issues related to civil rights and social justice. While SSFS created this booklet as a tool for the 2020 election, its relevance remains as we continue to navigate and build relationships in a polarizing world. The norms and skills listed above, along with additional information about Civic Engagement at SSFS, can be found in our booklet.

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