Conventions for Effective Conversations

The Way of Openness for Heart and Mind Conversations

It is time to establish respectable conventions for engaging in religious or ideological disagreements that entail sharing of the heart as well as the mind. Religions are not organized like nation-states for diplomatic engagements, but religious leaders and lay people of different traditions will find common conventions for communication helpful—especially if they are congenial with their respective traditions. To this end FRD in consultation with leaders of diverse traditions has developed a set of attitudes and practices that anyone can learn and use to have honest conversations without a mediator. It is called The Way of Openness, connoting mutual openness of expression from heart and mind, and mutual openness to receive influence from the conversation partner.

FRD’s ‘heart and mind’ conversations begin with disclosure of the various motives for having a conversation aimed at mutual influence. Once motives are understood, then the rules of engagement for a helpful conversation need to be discussed and mutually approved. The Way of Openness provides these basic rules in the form of attitudes and practices for effective conversations. The following ten headlines are described in more detail at The World Table.

FRD does not aim for conversations that lead to consensus. In fact, effective conversations allow those with divergent ideals, beliefs and programs to understand why they actually oppose each other in important ways. When this is clear, the question arises, “Can we engage our critics and rivals as trustworthy opponents instead of suspicious enemies?” The answer is yes, if the motive is mutual well-being and the attitude is openness to mutual influence. This leads to a realization that peace includes a continual tension of oppositional resistance as well as practical collaboration. The natural desire for one ideal way to surpass others in a world of contested beliefs is not incompatible with mutual respect between honorable rivals that refuse to coerce each other. The tension of unresolvable conflicts is not suppressed, but openly expressed especially when social and political decisions require legal closure on practices that have moral or religious ramifications. In human societies there is ongoing cultural ascent and decline in the relative power or influence of groups; however, rival groups can acquiesce to temporary societal decisions even as they continue in good faith to persuade their fellow citizens to resist what is and adopt a higher way.

The Way of Openness

Be Honest

Honesty begins when you look in the mirror. Who do you really think you are and who do want to become? When you are deeply honest, you acknowledge your motives for doing things, and express your thoughts and feelings without faking it. Your honesty prompts others to respond the same way, and with open hearts and minds real communication results.

Be Kind

Kindness goes further toward building trust than the other practices listed here. It is not weak, or naive, or mere politeness. Kindness is a language easily recognized and understood by everyone. Sincere kindness is a powerful way to influence others to desire to hear you. But, be wise: nothing shatters trust more than phony, manipulative kindness, or false respectfulness.

Listen Well

It is hard to listen well when you focus more on your feelings and thoughts than those of the person addressing you. Listening well is not remaining quiet before you insert your response; it is intense focus on a unique person with a desire for understanding. By listening like this to others you offer the gift of respectful empathy that everyone craves to receive. In return others feel like they should listen well to understand you.

Share the Floor

If you want to be taken seriously you must take others seriously. Sharing the floor means allowing others equal time to speak even when you “know” you are right and they are wrong. It acknowledges the mutual dignity of those engaged in conversation. Hogging the floor is disrespectful and rude, and it always undermines your persuasive ability when you appear dismissive or fearful of what others have to say.

Presume Good Will

We often presume that others do not have our best interests at heart. Sometimes they don’t. But you sabotage any honest communication with someone you presume to be stupid, duped or ill intentioned. Presuming good will is not agreeing with an other’s beliefs or values. It means that you grant that others are clear thinking and good hearted unless proven otherwise.

Acknowledge the Differences

Each human is uniquely different with a unique history and perspective. Acknowledging our important differences openly frees us to know where we stand without having to guess, and creates a tone of trust for real conversation. You cannot feel whole or honest if you focus only on similarities and avoid facing differences in deep beliefs and values.

Answer the Tough Questions

With genuine differences come tough questions—especially if the goal is a trusting relationship. When you ask answer tough questions in a strait-forward way, sharing the floor equally and presuming good will, you build strong mutual trust. You can then face offensive issues without taking offense. However, diving deeper for better understanding has a limit. Aggressive interrogation or pushing for private details destroys trust.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Any compliment feels good, but a sincere compliment from an unexpected source such as a rival or critic can move our hearts powerfully toward trust. By openly admiring the excellence or good on ‘the other side’ you demonstrate your honesty and fairness, and your confidence that your side can handle the truth. But be cautious—insincere compliments to manipulate or disarm others disastrously undermine any grounds for trust.

Speak Only for Yourself

Each of us is unique and we don’t like others—especially outsiders—to stereotype us or claim they know what we really believe or value. So ask, don’t tell others what they think and feel. It is tempting to speak for your friends and tribe members as if they all share the same view as you do. Except when you have been authorized to speak on behalf of others, speak only for yourself and encourage others to do likewise.

Keep Private Things Private

Humans are social beings, but their thoughts and feelings are private unless expressed. Personal dignity is based in large part on your freedom to choose when and where to share your inner self with others. Being open, honest and trustworthy does not require you (even if it were possible) to disclose all things to all people. Keeping private things private means you strictly honor someone’s choice to say something to you alone. If you cannot keep it private, you should ask the person not to share it.

The Way of Openness is an effective method for having a great exchange especially with someone who disagrees with you. However, prior to engaging the following guidelines are helpful to arrange for the conversation. No mediator is required, but a facilitator can be invited to observe the conversation if parties feel the need.

Guidelines for setting up a conversations

  1. Two at a time: Include only two religious or ideological traditions in each encounter.
  2. Face to face: face-to-face duets work best, but no more than five on each “side.”
  3. Eat together first: share personal life stories over a meal before the scheduled encounter.
  4. “Why” matters most: disclose fully any motives and purposes for the conversation.
  5. Make a plan: agree on topics, questions, schedule and place for the private conversation.
  6. Follow the rules: commit to adhere to The Way of Openness.