Discussing Without Disgusting

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By Dr. Dolly Berthelot

 America has become a volatile place to have meaningful conversation. Perhaps the whole world has. Is it possible to address controversial issues together without rancor? We lose that ability at our peril.

Whether online or in person, across the dinner table or the board table or the oceans, among individuals or religions or organizations or politicians or nations, poor potential outcomes of escalating conflict include chaos, hostility, enmity—at worst, even violence. Any of these can mean waste, loss, calamity or catastrophe for those involved as well as for those who try to avoid the controversy. At the very least, when discussion disintegrates into disrespect and then disgust, nobody wins. Nobody grows. Nobody learns anything. Nobody moves forward.

So what can you and I and every single person of good will do about this?

First, we must understand that nothing gets accomplished by two people or two groups without the INTENTION of accomplishing something together. Even if that goal is simply mutual understanding. Simply? Ha! That’s often a challenge for all of us.

Whatever the collective goal, it must be accomplished in cooperation with one another, not in competition with one another, particularly not in hostile competition, which is the most destructive.

One of my favorite traditional proverbs is the Chinese saying, “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.”

And we see every topic from where we “come from.” That may include our age, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, heritage, geography, political party, faith, philosophy, education, profession or work, friends and family, income, natural proclivities, etc. All these and more shape the perspective we bring to any discussion. Sometimes they can blind us to objective reality.

darcy-chambre (perspective)Our perspective affects our perceptions. Think of two people in a room, X standing on the northwest corner, Y sitting in the southeast corner. Things happen in various parts of that room. X and Y will naturally see (or not see) whatever happens in that same room quite differently. They will literally see (and miss) different things. They will certainly interpret what they see (and miss) quite differently. Even if both have their eyes wide open and neither are blind.

By sharing their varying perspectives, BOTH persons in that room can enhance visibility and thus foster mutual understanding. But each must carefully attend to how the other person sees things. If each calmly explains what he or she witnesses or experiences, rather than screams that that view is the ONLY logical or rational or good or worthwhile view, or calls the opposite perspective foolish or stupid or evil, and if each person listens carefully and open-mindedly to the other, everyone will benefit. Everyone stands to gain a more 360° perspective. Certainly the often complex and confusing reality will become clearer.

So, to achieve more productive dialogue, consider the following brief guidelines:


  1. Intend to accomplish genuine dialogue, mutual understanding.
  2. Respect those with whom you disagree. Respect is not agreement.
  3. Assume they may see, know, experience something you haven’t.
  4. Share your perspective and your perception calmly and kindly.
  5. Listen to opposing perspectives expectantly and open-mindedly.
  6. Appreciate the opportunity to share, listen, learn, grow.
  7. Reward the sharing of others by your behaviors and your gratitude.


  1. Presume the worst about those with whom you differ.
  2. Ridicule or insult—overtly or in your mind.
  3. Overgeneralize. Acknowledge but control your biases.
  4. Let your prejudices and preferences rule your better judgment.
  5. Fear that truly hearing another person is harmful to you.