Consider this situation: Colleague A sits opposite you, and often helps you with the tasks your boss has assigned when you have your hands full; Colleague B, on the other hand, is always busy with their own work, and rarely talks to you about work or chats with you about what’s going on in your lives. If these colleagues asked you simultaneously to give some of your time to help them with major projects, when time was limited, which one would you choose to help?
Now apply a similar logic to communicating with the older generation in your family. You’ve been working for several years, and only return home once a year, for the New Year break. Senior members of your family meet their neighbors, the local borough head and community officials, every day, and speak to them far more frequently than they do with you, as you have likely only called them a few times a year since you left home. One day, when you — the son or daughter — and the person living in the apartment next door to your family have a serious disagreement on a certain issue, who do you think your senior family member will listen to in the first instance?
“Credit”, or your credit rating, in the financial sense indicates the trust banks are prepared to place in you when you ask them to lend you money. They will be impressed if you have shown over a prolonged period of time that you pay back your debts, and top up your savings. The longer you can pull this off, the more credit you will have.
The same is true when it comes to credit when used in the context of interpersonal relations. It cannot be built up overnight, but rather accumulates over an extended period of time. The more credit exists between two parties, or the more they are prepared to trust each other based on past behavior, the easier it will be for them to discuss it in a level-headed and rational manner; to give each other the benefit of the doubt. This is true even when they have opposing stances on a given issue. On the other hand, when there is little credit between the two parties, expressing an opinion or trying to persuade the other party can very quickly lead to conflict and a parting on bad terms.
We often believe that facts, statistics and logical exposition are the most important parts of a dialogue, but the person with whom we are talking is not a machine. They are made of flesh and blood, and possess feelings and emotions. Trust, a feeling of security, and an emotional connection, are crucial yet often-overlooked elements in sustaining a meaningful dialogue.
Accumulating credit: A case of less haste, more speed
Credit can be accumulated by frequently asking after people, being considerate, lending a helping hand, and offering emotional support. That is, the best approach is “to accumulate credit over time, bit by bit” through the course of our daily lives.
Ways to accumulate credit:
- Take an interest in the other person’s life (such as asking after their health, or what they have been up to lately)
- Proactively offer to help them with things (such as with operating their phone, or planning their day)
- Chat about things the other person likes or cares about (such as movies they’ve seen recently, or leisure activities they enjoy)
The next time you bump into them, ask what they have been up to, or share an interesting anecdote. The more willing we are to get close to somebody’s social milieu and take on board things they care about, the easier it is to build and consolidate an emotional connection. This will help lay a strong foundation of credit that can act as a bridge to future discussions about public affairs.
Dodging drama: Dealing with difficult situations
In the following four scenarios, we suggest adjustments to your approach that will put you in good stead to overcome difficulty and sustain a dialogue:
- Issue: Dialogue breaks down, with both parties jumping in too quickly to label the other person or their views with catch-all terms.
- Changing your approach: Listen attentively, do not reject out of hand things you don’t agree with, try to understand the reasons the other person came to have their stance or values, and what makes them distinct or similar from popular narratives.
- Through observation or chatting, try to learn about the other person’s experiences.
- Imagine yourself in their situation, and try to see things from their point of view.
When things get heated
- Issue: Conversation intensifies because emotions take over the conversation, and both parties find it difficult to focus on the facts.
- Changing your approach: After you have had the opportunity to calm down, spend some time reviewing and reflecting on what happened, and think about the core ideas behind all of the emotional language.
- Take a deep breath and take some time out.
- When you have both calmed down, talk to each other about how you feel.
- Try to find out exactly what the other person believes, and work out what it is that each of you really wants to express.
Trying to win the argument
- Issue: The other person does not want to continue the conversation because the speaker is preoccupied with winning the argument and beating the other person into submission.
- Changing your approach: The key to a successful dialogue is not persuading the other person to admit that you are right and they are wrong. Take a moment to reflect on how often this approach has worked for you, and how often it has left you unable to continue conversations, or left feeling deflated as well.
- Make an agreement that when one person speaks, the other has to listen and not interrupt.
- Change your approach from “I want to win!” to one that seeks a balanced exchange of ideas.
- Keep the exchange balanced (as in, how much information is given, or how much time it takes).
Sticking to your guns
- Issue: Meaningful two-way communication cannot happen because one party sticks to its own ideas.
- Changing your approach: When your strongly held values and opinions are challenged, don’t rush into making the issue an either/or proposition. Try to appreciate the issue and discuss it from many different perspectives.
- When faced with challenging opinions, don’t rush to counter and take the offensive.
- Ask open questions, try to find a consensus with the other party on at least some elements of the discussion.
- Give each other space to learn something new and to adjust your way of thinking.