Difficult Conversations [Yes, that's right, still the Trenchant Edges]

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 36 seconds. Contains 921 words

Welcome back to the newsletter I keep calling the Trenchant Edges because I dislike all my other ideas.

I'm Stephen, your host, and today we're doing a kind of hacky thing because research on my intended topics keeps opening new rabbit holes, and I'm unhappy with where the essays for today were left.

So I want to zoom in on maybe the most important practical issue I think we have.

How do you communicate with people who disagree with you rather than trying to talk past each other and scoring points?

A Note on Debate

I do not like debates.

Unless conducted by excessively scrupulous and good faith partners, informal debates usually devolve into empty shouting matches or irrelevant shouting past each other.

Formal debates are often worse, as strict time limits don't' let a conversation or point flow or allow for shifting emphasis that honest hard discussions are built on.

The problem comes down to trust: If you don't trust the person you're talking with or if they don't deserve that trust, you can't communicate deeper than the shallows.

This is, in fact, the whole point of small talk: The verbal version of people demonstrating they're unthreatening and slowly building up trust to go into choppier topics with.

So you need to have *some* trust. But how do you do that? Can you create trust between people whose worldviews contradict? Or worse?

Difficult Conversations

The short answer is: Maybe, sometimes.

It can be a delicate thing.

Breaking trust can be extremely easy. Simple unaddressed mistakes compounded over time are the death knell for many relationships, platonic and romantic alike.

Often they're not even mistakes. But decisions one makes without understanding or caring about the consequences.

If you're on the political left like me, you want to build a politics built on shared vulnerability and solidarity, this kind of thing is a problem.

Because it's poison to any organizing.

A few communication frameworks claim to provide an answer to this sort of thing, such as Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication (NVC). But these mostly shift issues around rather than solving them and open up practitioners to new kinds of manipulation.

This isn't entirely NVC's fault; all ideas have tactical value in a competitive communication situation. Even in the furthest left spaces, the person using "woke" rhetoric to manipulate people or their lovers is a cliche. Everyone's seen it.

In political conversations where there are real power stakes, getting the power acts as a vague but definite count for who's winning and losing. For the most interesting breakdown of this, I think Keith Johnstone's Impro is an excellent introduction to the topic built around acting situations.

He realized that status dynamics are implicit in how we communicate, and if you take those away from drama, the play falls flat.

We're hardwired to this status mechanism to some degree, but its downsides can be atrocities. High-status people benefit from a "Halo Effect" where they receive the assumption of innocence and goodness, which has hidden just a staggering number of criminals over the years.

CW next paragraph for sexual violence

The scandal in the Catholic church where priests have abused and occasionally even murdered parishioners with the full knowledge and protection of the Vatican is probably the most well-known and documented single instance, but it's far from alone. Similar scandals plague Protestant denominations and secular institutions alike.

The point is, empowering this wired sensitivity towards social status with ideologies like patriarchy, institutional protection, and accountability is a time-tested recipe to generate abuse.

It's bad, y'all.

This dynamic erodes trust in institutions and society more broadly.

But that's a whole other topic. I want to focus on a narrow subset of difficult conversations rather than mixed-status negotiations.

Difficult Conversations Between Equals

My overarching obsession in life is the difference between the right and wrong use of power.

We're not going to go into all the details here, but it can be very nuanced depending on the situation. Humans in social groups tend to gain power through some mix of trust, control of resources, or special access to a skill.

One way to misuse power is to violate that trust, for example, for someone given control over an organization's finances to use that money for personal gain. The podcast Gangster Capitalism had two great seasons on Wayne Lapierre's NRA and Jerry Falwell Jr's Liberty University precisely on this topic.

So, I want to simplify this by purely discussing conversations with minimal stakes between equals.

Partially, they're the simplest because table stakes aren't in play and partially because, as predominantly random people on the Internet, they're the conversations we mainly engage in.

Games People Play

When talking with each other online, the first factor that matters is the platform—every site structures interact with whom differently.

I prefer facebook's curated garden to twitter's public square because it's usually much easier to establish some baseline trust between people.

This isn't a piece about "cancel culture," but a whole ton of it is built around the kinds of control different platforms give individual users. I scare quotes because it's just another form of gatekeeping and taboos, which are universal rather than a partisan wedge.

The game I like the best is "Two people exploring a topic in good faith."

It's easy to recognize because folks are open about their intentions, don't try to trick or trap each other, and there's a give and take in their comments. The sure signs of people communicating.

Unless the people start with a shared vocabulary, it begins with defining key mutual terms.

*looks at time*

Alright, I’ve run out of time to get this out today so I guess we’ll continue breaking format for the better. We’ll be back tomorrow with the other half of this piece.

Fun, right?