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How to Have a Crucial Conversation


Campus minister, educator, and Busted Halo writer Mary Ann Steutermann chats with Father Dave about navigating challenging conversations.

Father Dave points out that there is a lot of division happening in our country surrounding the election and amidst the pandemic, and asks Mary Ann why it’s important to know how to engage in difficult conversations. “It’s important to be able to have conversations where we don’t want to throttle each other … Crucial conversations are things that are high stakes, [and involve] differing opinions and high emotions,” Mary Ann says. “For example, when we talk about race, politics, or major issues in our lives, regular conversational skills don’t work for them. You have to use a whole set of different skills for something at that level … When high stakes come into play, that means if we can’t come to a shared place of meaning, then it hurts the relationship. It’s all about supporting the relationship and finding what is called a ‘pool of shared meaning.’ Because even when we are very different, there has to be something that connects us. It’s just a matter of working towards finding what connects us.”

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Mary Ann suggests being clear on our motives when engaging in conversation. “In conversations dealing with differing opinions, our goal is usually to win. Our goal is to convince the other person that we are right … If that’s our goal, then let’s call it a debate. Let’s call it a friendly conversation about different viewpoints. But that’s not a crucial conversation because we’re not invested in a shared goal or working together to achieve some shared outcome.”

“The difference with a crucial conversation in this context is we want to move forward. We want to find common ground that will allow us to move forward. It’s not just about, ‘Let me tell you all the reasons why I’m smarter than you.’ It’s about, ‘How can we find a place where we can meet and move forward together?’”

“We should start with verifiable facts. If we start with our judgments of our story, we can easily get off track. For instance, if my husband and I are having an argument because he’d like to stay in and I’d like to go out… if I begin by saying, ‘You are not responsive to my interests or needs,’ it’s not going anywhere. But if I said, ‘The last four weekends when I have suggested going out, you have said, let’s stay in and watch TV,’ who can argue with that? When you put the facts out there you are on solid ground, and then you step back and say and dialogue in a healthy way.”

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Maryann discusses the concept of agreeing to disagree. She points out that in agreeing to disagree we are still disagreeing. But we want to end a crucial conversation by moving forward together. That creates mutual purpose and adds to the pool of shared meaning.