We are painfully aware that ours is an angry time where people are denigrated, fired, canceled or labeled for their viewpoint. Disappearing is calm discussion between people who see an issue differently. According to many, someone with a different political viewpoint is not just a friend who sees things differently, but an enemy, who poses an existential threat to our planet and our nation.  People who see things differently should be obliterated, silenced and expunged.

While it is agonizing to see this trend in our nation, it is even more heartbreaking to see this rancor trickle down to family and circles of friends. A woman I know was devastated to see a ward member unfriend her on Facebook because she didn’t like her political stance.

The New York Times reported that eleven members of Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger’s family sent him a vitriolic letter accusing him of being a part of the “devil’s army” when he criticized President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 demonstration at the Capitol.

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“Oh my, what a disappointment you are to us and to God!” they wrote to the Illinois Republican. ‘It is now most embarrassing to us that we are related to you. You have embarrassed the Kinzinger family name!’

This is an agonizing story that can go either political direction, that we never, never want to happen in our own families.

Indeed, there are so many things to fight about from masks to vaccinations to political dirty tricks to violence in the street. In not many months, we have learned new reaches of anger that infiltrates much of what we read and hear on the news. If you wanted to purposely sow destruction in a nation, this level of division and hatred would do it.

Ron McMillan

So as a people, called to build Zion and become of one heart, starting in our families, how do we avoid the infiltration of this division right down to the personal level? Despite where family or friends fall on political issues, we want to maintain loving, close relationships. How is it done when potential for explosion lies with a burning fuse beneath some conversations?

Because these are an important and serious questions for all of us, we turned to Ron McMillan, a co-author of New York Times Bestseller Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High andco-founder of Vital Smarts for some answers. He’s traveled the world training corporate executives on how to talk about tough things, and so we asked him. “How do we maintain harmony in our relationships in this divisive climate and still talk about things that really matter to us?”

McMillan said there are some skills and tools we can develop,that reach right down to the quality of our heart we bring to our conversations. These skills can work in any kind of important conversation—not just political ones.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

He said, “There’s a mode of thinkingthat has been identified as ‘the fundamental attribution error’; it’s one of the greatest barriers to effective communication. This frequently occurs when we’re challenged, or intimes of danger or fear, we automatically, without even thinking about it, attribute motive to the other person. If someone does something that appears harmful to me, I attribute motive immediately.

“If the boss doesn’t praise my work, I wonder why. Did she not notice my efforts? Doesn’t she care? I attribute motive. She doesn’t like me.  Or perhaps my neighbor walks right past me on the sidewalk and looks the other way. He doesn’t say anything, and then automatically I think, ‘He’s mad at me. Why would he be mad at me? Oh, probably because I didn’t go to his dumb party.’”

McMillan said, “The reason this is called the fundamental attribution error is because most of us tend to do it most of the time when we are fearful, threatened or hurt.  It seems fundamental to our natures. If someone says or does something that we feel is hurtful, we wonder why and in answer to our own question, we attribute motive to others’ actions. Now, of course we do not know the reason others say what they say, or do what they do, so we guess. Psychologists say in most cases we guess wrong. Our negative attribution is an error. As soon as we assume someone’s motive is hurtful, it creates negative or bad feelings in us. Feelings such as, hurt, anger, indignation, upset, and fear are often based on a false attribution.

“One reason there’s such contention is that it seems this fundamental attribution error is built into our nature. Because of our survival instinct, we automatically assume the worst in someone’s motive. When someone does or says something that we perceive as hurtful, we tend to assume the worst about their action. That is how we protect ourselves from the worst, but when their real motive is not the worst, we are over-reacting and often creating even greater problems.”

A Strongly-held Political View

McMillan said, “When I have a strongly-held belief and someone challenges that belief or comes up with an opposing belief, then that can trigger the fundamental attribution error. We think, “I’m good. I want the best for us in the nation. I believe A. You believe B. Then you must be bad and want the worst for our nation”. It is an emotional logic that is built into us.’

“When we committhe fundamental attribution, our strong emotion often leads us to respond with some degree of violence or silence. Sometimes, we angrily lash out with a hurtful comment or cutting sarcasm. Other-times we water down our feelings and understate our point-of-view or worse, withhold our thoughts and feelings. Our actions and comments become the input they receive from us, and they are likely to make the fundamental attribution about us and their emotion escalates. They respond with some degree of silence or violence and a downward spiral ensues with each response strengthening the attribution error and adding fuel to the burning contention. Satan, who is the Father of Contention, uses the Fundamental Attribution Error as one of his greatest tools and strategies.

Ask Yourself This Question

“Here’s the skill to use to overcome the fundamental attribution error. If someone says or does something hurtful, harmful, or you aren’t sure, in your mind you just ask yourself the question, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do that? Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person say that? Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person believe that?’

“The skill is not in assuming that they are reasonable, rational and decent, because often people aren’t. The skill is: let me assume this person is ‘reasonable, rational and decent’ and see if I can better understand their behavior and why they did what they did. (Note: if in the moment, this skill seems a bit wordy, ask yourself “Why would a good person say that?”).

“For example, let’s say I am talking to someone about politics and they start getting really angry, and say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re ugly,’ I stop and say in my mind “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person say that?” Could it be they are scared that what I represent is dangerous to them because it challenges what they believe and care about? Could it be they had a bad day? Could be they got up on the wrong side of the bed and were late to work and missed breakfast? Now of all the reasons I can think of to explain why a reasonable, rational, decent person would do this, which one is true? I don’t know. Maybe I ought to ask.

“Questioning their motives leads you to asking questions instead of making judgments and that creates a whole different emotional dynamic in your heart. Everything starts changing in your heart. You know how well that works with a toddler. The toddler comes up and smacks you in the knee with a spatula. You think, ‘What a rotten kid.’ That will lead you to a whole lot of bad thoughts and behavior. But if you think, ‘Oh he’s just a toddler and a toddler doesn’t know any better, then suddenly, instead of being angry with them, you say to yourself, ‘It still hurts, but I’ve got to be patient.’ Then you can actually get into a thinking mode rather than an emotional-reaction mode.

McMillan said, “Notice, so far these are skills I do with myself and I haven’t even opened my mouth yet. Since I want to avoid the fundamental attribution error, I say to myself, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person believe that?’ My truthful answer is “I don’t know.

So maybe I better ask.”  To this point, all of this is me controlling me. Me creating the right emotional and mental framework that I can use to communicate on a complex or difficult subject without my emotions taking me somewhere else that I don’t want to go.

McMillan said, “By using these skills, now you have put yourself in a questioning mode, rather than a defensive mode or an attacking mode. At this point, there’s a lot of directions you can take it. I’ve found a lot of success with seeking to understand their statements or actions.

“You might use questions like ‘I don’t understand why you said that. What do you mean by that? Are you saying that anyone who didn’t vote your way is unreasonable? Why do you believe that? Help me understand.

“Go into a total capture, listening mode. You need to understand what’s going on here. Often, this technique can be used with violence—that’s why you have to make sure your motives are pure. Ask questions to really understand. Do not ask sarcastic questions that are making statements like ‘Your mother hated you when you were little and that’s why you are so insecure? Or that is why you are so stupid?’

“Sincere questions often help the person to look at themselves and what they are thinking and why, helping them overcome their fundamental attribution error.

Lead with Questions

“It is amazing how things frequently de-escalate when you ask questions because you are helping them think through what they believe, rather than just emoting. If we take that as a beginning, then you can cross over to, instead of only listening, sharing an expression of what you think, believe or feel.”

“Often the goal for me,” said McMillan, “is to get to create dialogue. I am trying to capture your meaning and trying to share mine. If I can get to dialogue, you understand me better and I understand you better and maybe we can come up with a different way forward than if we don’t have that understanding.”

Make it Safe

“The key to opening dialogue is to make is safe. You only will share what you feel and think with me to the degree you feel safe sharing that with me. If you don’t feel safe with me you are not going to share that deep, tender thought or feeling.

McMillan said, “To make it safe, I can frequently do that by (1. Go to a listening mode—to understand. We are not battling, we are not arguing. I am really trying to understand and I am really trying to make it safe for you. (2. Share your good intention is a good skill. “I am not trying to argue with you or say you are wrong. I really want to understand how you see it, and why you see it that way. That is important to me to know.”

“To the degree there is any trust in the relationship or a history of good intent, then sincere questions can often put the other person at ease. They see, ‘You’re not trying to battle me, you’re not trying to prove me wrong.’

“You continue to ask clarifying questions that gets more meaning into the dialogue, making sure these are never sarcastic nor abrasive. Instead say, ‘It’s important to me to know how you feel.’”

Why You are Acting that Way

McMillan said, “Another way I can go with this is to turn it from a conversation about what you believe and what you think into a conversation about how you’re acting and why you are acting that way. 

“With that you factually state what you observe and you compare it with what you expected and if there’s a gap there and you ask why? ‘You called me a name and you said it is because I am a conservative. Did I understand that right? Do you really believe that? Tell me why you think that?’  

“What I am putting in the pool is my meaning. I factually describe what happened, compared it with what I expected and ask why.

“I was in a philosophy class at the University of Utah and the teacher just began ridiculing the Church. He said it put manacles on people’s brains and it was so stupid and silly. I felt I was inspired to do this and then, later using my training in communication I learned why it worked.

“I said, ‘My name is Ron McMillan, and I’m a Mormon, born and raised in Utah. As I understood today’s topic, it was this—and I pointed to the board where the topic was listed, and yet for the last 20 minutes you’ve just talked about the Latter-day Saint church in quite a negative, disparaging way. What’s your intent here? Can you help us understand what you hope we should be taking from this?’

“He just stood there. He kind of looked taken back and then said, ‘I guess I got off the subject.’ Then he went back to the lesson.

“I stood up for what I believed, and I questioned him about why he was doing what he was doing. What was his intention? He had to look at himself and he had to question his intention. I thought, I could have said, ‘Oh yeah, the Book of Mormon is true’ and stomped out, but that would have never worked.  (29:29) There are just so many ways this could have become contentious, if I had not asked about his intention.

“It can be important to ask about someone’s else’s intention in a crucial conversation. You ask, ‘Why are you saying that?’

“Someone might be saying to you, ‘People like you, you always do this or this and it makes you feel you are superior.’ You say, ‘I always do what?’

“They might say, ‘You spout off about how great you think that senator is.’

“Getting to their intention, you might ask, ‘Does that cause you to believe that I think I am superior to you or that I think I know what is best? Is that what you are saying?’ You start thinking about their behaviors and asking why. Help me understand. Are you trying to hurt me? Are you trying to silence me? I don’t understand why you said that.’

“Remember if the goal is dialogue, you have to create a condition of safety, especially in the questions you ask. If I see that you are taking offense, then that is what I talk about. ‘Did you think I meant to hurt you?  You address the offense. Instead of talking about what you believe or what you did, I am now talking about what you feel about what has been said, and then I have a chance to correct any offense given.

“You might say, ‘I was talking about the people who rushed the capitol. I wasn’t thinking of you.’ Sometimes a quick apology when someone has taken offense and returning to ask questions where you really seek to understand is enough to defuse a tense moment in dialogue. It’s hard to bash people when they apologize or ask questions or really seek to understand,” Ron McMillan said.

This is the beginning of skills you can use to defuse a tense conversation and turn it into a meaningful dialogue.

Look for Part Two tomorrow: What a Hostage Negotiator can Teach us about Crucial Conversations.