Difficult conversations, trust and experience gaps: a learning moment

I am a boundary spanner by nature. As an atheist, left of left liberal, unschooling, immigrant single mother of color and a scholar, I am doubly triply, quadruply marginal; so boundary spanning is a social requirement for sanity. My friends span the political spectrum from Tea Party to ‘Obama is a Centrist’ liberals. My extended family is global. My immediate family is biracial. One thing about occupying the interstices of these nexuses is that you see what is happening on both sides. And it frustrates me that every group preaches to its own choir. I see it in personal social circles as well as among the public intellectuals in the academy.

Most times I stay clear of potentially contentious topics on Facebook on which I try to separate the personal from the political, but on occasion it spills out. When I post something political, my wall becomes an opinion war zone or an engaged discussion space depending on the moment and who is involved in the conversation.  Most recently on gun control, my liberal and conservative friends surprised me by actually being civil to each other. But in general, as a society, we are yet to learn to talk to each other without condescension or mistrust. Usually, I get frustrated with this preaching to the choir, but a recent experience opened my eyes to how much easier life is if you didn’t have to talk to anyone who doesn’t share your experience and history.

Some conversations are difficult for all of us but a few are particularly difficult. Having difficult conversations with employees is considered a managerial challenge. Examples of difficult conversations because people put their foot in their mouths abound in media. Given the divided yet united nature of the US society, topics of difficult conversations range from immigration and climate change to vaccinations and control over’s own body. Hope Jahren talks about the role of trust gaps between the scientific community and the vaccine resistors in the vaccination debate. Which is applicable not only to climate change and other scientific issues but also social issues like police violence and racism discourses. Trust gaps are closely related to experience gaps.

My LOL being a caucasian doesn’t always see or experience the world like I do. Recently, I went to Arizona to spend some time with a friend who was flying in from New York on work. When you drive from San Diego to Scottsdale, you drive along the US-Mexican border and there is a border control office in Yuma, a border town. Surprise, surprise, I was pulled over separately for a thorough check up. Their job was to protect the border from Mexican immigrants, and so they need to check all the people who look like Mexicans or could be Mexicans. Despite my absolute lack of proficiency in Spanish, I could easily pass for a Mexican in appearance and local Hispanics routinely talk to me in Spanish.

However, my difficult conversation was not with the border control officers but with my LOL in the recounting of this event. As a liberal white man, he finds it offensive that I would be profiled but yet paradoxically has a naive worldview that the system is geared for fairness and justice. So the conversation went on about implicit biases and such. I was telling him about how I got out of the car when I was not sure what I was supposed to do and his immediate reaction was, “See, you didn’t follow the instructions!” This was an aha moment for me. Because in that second I became proxy for all the black men who were killed because they didn’t follow police orders. Most good people are grasping at straws to make a system in which unarmed people of color are attacked because either they are black or they are thought to be black more palatable or at least explicable. This rationale of ‘they didn’t follow the rules or they looked like a thug, so they got shot or attacked,” has become commonplace. Soon our conversation derailed into a ‘you don’t get my experience’ and ‘I was once the recipient of a really scary Southern hillbilly who called me a yankee and so I understand what you mean when you say racism.” Somewhat like the out of control response to Scott Aaronson’s Comment 171. Overall, what started out as a very pleasant evening was ruined and I had to call Timeout because I needed to gather my emotions which were running amok.

LOL is not a racist. Far from it. There is no trust gap between us but there is definitely an experience gap. But trust gaps and experience gaps are closely linked and shape each other. I think he secretly thought that I was calling him a racist. I was frustrated that he didn’t get me. I was not calling any individual racist, not even the border control officers, but was lamenting the systemic and structural factors. Much like the recent debates on white privilege. We both want a world in which Viyan will not be attacked for not being white but it was nevertheless an exhausting conversation which increasingly went from supportive and active listening to recriminations, advocacy, and defensiveness. If it is so hard with people who we trust and love, it is no wonder my FB page is a war zone. Yes, I don’t need to use so many words to explain my stance to another woman of color who is raising a boy. She gets it instantly because it is a shared experience. Nothing’s lost in translation. I get it that it is much easier not to have to translate and talk to people who share your world view and life experience, but it is really important for us to learn to have these difficult conversations and build the emotional resilience and muscle for it. Difficult conversations discuss matters that most need to be addressed. Which is why my soap box is all about moral imagination and mental models. Lets talk more with those who think are not our kindred spirits.

What was your latest difficult conversation? How did you handle it?

PS: Whether border control should exist is an altogether different discussion and best saved for another time.

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15 Responses to Difficult conversations, trust and experience gaps: a learning moment

  1. I belong to and administrate a political group on FB. The RULE is that we have to be civil. The members run the gamut in perspectives, so it makes for some very interesting conversations, but ultimately we have become friends and THAT is what keeps us civil. When, after talking to one another at length, you realize that most people have the same goal, then it becomes easier to talk about the paths to get here. I’ve written about this before. It is a very interesting phenomenon. The thing that I think makes the discussions so difficult is that we can’t divorce ourselves from our personal experiences, which is why we should try hard to understand those of the person to whom we are speaking (or writing).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for our thoughtful comment! It is absolutely important to understand where the other person is coming from. The challenge is that we do have personal histories and vantage points that are very difficult to cross even among friends and lovers. Keeping civil relationships is really good. But harder is to be truly open and engage in others’ perspectives. That is very scary for most people because it shakes up their certainties. For example, if you are a scientist who relies on science for proof of climate change (96% of scientists do agree on that fact) and you have someone else who does not trust science, the two may become friend and keep a civil conversation but being nice alone is not going to be helpful for policy decisions. But I am glad that you have a group of people that are trying and managing to be civil. Even that is an accomplishment.


      • Oh, we debate. The debate itself can get heated, but we are not allowed to attack the person. We try our best to follow actual rules of debate. And we learn from one another. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. We’ve been through some tough arguments and lost a few members over it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Can you tell me the types of issues that you lose members over? I cannot fight and leave my house, you know 🙂


          • It’s been over the topics that are closest to human issues. Sadly, we’ve had a few join the group that offered opinions with only an emotional attachment to the subject and no actual data. Some were removed by us for being single-mindedly disruptive or insulting, again usually attached to topics that had direct human impact: racism, choice, employment issues. Two had downright PTSD reactions to certain subjects and others were just condescending and abusive. After more than a year, we’ve reached a good balance.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Sometimes emotions are data too. That is the hardest thing about working with people!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin says:

    This is a deep topic no doubt. I have gotten better with age regarding difficult conversations or perhaps I no longer care or feel I am always right.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anonymous says:

    Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there’s a field. I’ll meet you there – Rumi. Saved my sanity in a few of my difficult conversations when I’ve had the sense to remember it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Larraine says:

    Difficult conversations are hard to avoid.

    Liked by 1 person

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