A topic like ‘affirmative action’ has masses of sub-arguments on either side. Or so an eloquent young thinker and author learned as a child, from discussions he had with his intelligent schizophrenic mother, potentially impacting his education. This launched a lifetime dedication to conversations on hard topics. Zachary R. Wood went on to become an avid writer for the likes of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. And he’s president of an academic association called Uncomfortable Learning.
We grow stronger, not weaker, by diving in and exploring the ideas and people we are opposed to. It’s about the process of identifying common ground. It’s about nurturing our empathy to tactfully gain insight. After all, as on-going Facebook dramas prove, de-friending from the provocative ideas and weird perspectives of those we call ‘trolls’ does not make their movements or voices disappear. It intensifies them.
Zachary, who’s Black American, triggered national controversy for inviting overt racists to speak on his campus. He did so in the belief that to advance in the face of adversity, by really trying to comprehend and engage the other, can be a process that works.
The exact same ethos was proposed by the great social historian of Oxford University, Theodore Zeldin. His notion was the modern conversation, free of older etiquette and time constraints. He deemed this a ‘meeting of minds with different memories and habits’ and argued that when minds come together, ‘they don’t just exchange facts, they transform them’ … and that conversation doesn’t simply ‘reshuffle the cards, it creates new cards’. He emphasised that we should be ready to emerge as a little different from when we enter a conversation. Zeldin’s work inspired the mission of Corballis Communication.
Very potently, conversation is much more than just making social encounters nicer. Each time two honest individuals try to understand each other, they change the world a little. We call this ‘active listening’ in the coaching world. When counterparties open their vulnerability and listen with true empathy, and then express their deepest responses, it can bring about a kind of equality between them.
Truth and reconciliation commissions in former war zones or divisive regimes like South Africa will attest to this. As will the facilitators of restorative justice processes, where victims of minor crimes and their families sit face-to-face with the perpetrators, to talk out the impacts. In fact, in contrast, conversations among the like-minded are often quite mundane. Agreeing on all critical detail often means simply reverting to the banality of day-to-day narratives. The echo-chamber effect of social media has also shown us how unengaging one-sided ranting can be.
More than 15 years in communication performance coaching has beautifully illustrated for Tony Corballis these resonating, humane and genius arguments by the young Zachary R. Wood and the elderly Theodore Zeldin.
Training interviewers on how to interview is a recent coaching example Tony has undertaken. Training educators of any sort is another. Training anyone in active listening is massively beneficial. Top-down reflection on the application and potency of active listening in the workplace is even more so. Active listening and honest response are the pillars of great conversations.
The power of proper conversations – brave and unrushed – is something great leaders know and practice, and weak leaders do not.