When we try to talk out a problem with someone, and conversation hasn’t yielded the results we hoped, we may find ourselves withdrawing from them. But as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai reminds us, there’s often a better choice.
One of the core graduate courses I used to teach to mediation and conflict resolution master’s degree students was Interpersonal Conflict Resolution. There was just one major assignment for the term: Have a difficult conversation with someone with whom you are or have been in conflict. I reasoned that would-be mediators should step up to the kinds of conversations they expect their clients to have, and I figured there was no better way to practice interpersonal conflict resolution skills than to put them to a meaningful test in real life.
I wrote about the experience years ago, describing what my grad students taught me about stepping up to difficult conversations.
And step up, they did. Some concentrated on contractor problems or conflict with a neighbor. Some sat down with estranged family members. Some reached out to former bosses or current colleagues they’d been avoiding. One sat down with his fiancée to consider whether or not they should get married after all. Another reached out to her son’s former partner to request the return of a treasured family ring several years after her son had died.
These were transformative conversations for many of the students, and their class presentations about the experience were the source of much laughter and tears for those of us who had the privilege to witness them.
Sometimes the disagreement, conflict, or tension was sorted out in that one conversation. But more often, the initial conversation didn’t miraculously fix things. It did something equally or more important: It created reconnection or re-engagement in a relationship that had been interrupted or allowed to languish. And there lies the real opportunity.
I was reminded of this when one of my former grad students alerted me to a conversation between Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and Yale University professor Dr. Laurie Santos, host of The Happiness Lab podcast. Santos was interested in how Malala bridges gulfs between herself and those who don’t share her views about women’s rights and access to education.
Malala told Santos about a relative who did not believe Malala should appear in front of television cameras. Malala’s father had asked the relative to accompany her to a press conference, and the relative was appalled.
Malala fights injustice every day and could readily have called out the male relative or cut herself off from him. She said,
Sometimes we have this idea, like: ‘We are the righteous ones and we are on the right path and [anyone] in disagreement with our opinions is wrong!’ We should not have this approach at all.
Instead, Malala chooses to keep engaging her critics, staying in contact and spending time with them, as she did with this family member. We have the idea that if we can just manage one perfectly executed conversation, all will be well. This is a miscalculation because, as Malala pointed out, it’s the ongoing connection and proximity that gives us the real opportunity:
The more experience that they have with you, [the more they] really change their perspective.
It’s this way of thinking that makes me such a fan of shared everyday experiences for re-establishing the connection that conflict has splintered.
Today, Malala’s family member is one of her biggest supporters. Said Malala,
“Sometimes it’s not a conversation that actually changes people’s minds and perspective…it’s the time that they spend with you.” – @MalalaTweet