people talking

9 Things to Remember When Having Spontaneous Conversations About Ethical Issues

by Marsha Rakestraw

I hate conflict. (Even the potential for conflict.)

And I’m shy. And I’m not very good at knowing the right thing to say in the moment.

Already I have three strikes against me when having in-the-moment conversations with others about global ethical issues.

As a humane educator, I want to inspire others to make positive changes and to model a message of compassion.

As me, I tend to react emotionally when talking about ethical issues and often struggle with the right words. Hours, or days later, I think of what I wish I’d said.

And I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

Fortunately there’s a lot we can do to ensure that we have more effective and meaningful interactions with others.

Here are nine things to remember when we’re having those in-the-moment conversations.

  1. Stay calm, compassionate, and humble.
    Even when our throats are dry and our hearts are beating like a caffeinated snare drum, it’s important that we stay calm and maintain our compassion and humility. Take a breath and pause before speaking. Smile as you listen to them.
  2. Have ready responses in your “back pocket.”
    As humane educators, we often get the same kinds of questions or encounter similar opinions about ethical issues. So we can start building up a mental toolkit of ready responses. If we have a go-to response to a typical question or comment, it’s easier to function under pressure.It’s also important to remember that “I don’t know” can be one of those responses. We can’t know everything, but we can point others to relevant resources or offer to get back to them with an answer to their question.
  3. Start where they are and refrain from bringing judgment to the conversation.
    Telling people why we think they’re wrong and what choices they should be making will only hinder inspiring them to open their minds and hearts. As humane educator and IHE graduate Lexie Greer notes:“When I am speaking with someone in an impromptu conversation about a challenging issue, I try to maintain a gentle and humble approach. I wasn’t born/raised a vegan, or an environmentalist, or a human rights activist, or a social justice educator. I came to walk this path through the gentle, open, and passionate guidance of others. Soft eyes and a gentle smile can do wonders for yourself and others when discussing difficult topics.”
  4. Focus on building relationships.
    As people passionate about creating a better world, it’s hard for us to let go of a potential opportunity to inspire change. But our goal needs to be on cultivating positive relationships with others, rather than on trying to change their minds. If we’re less concerned about taking advantage of every chance to educate others, it reduces the pressure to “perform.”
  5. Learn from them.
    We are committed to creating a just, compassionate world. Likely the people we’re talking to are as equally committed to their points of view. Passion for a point of view doesn’t make it valid, but listening to others and learning why they believe what they believe is valuable in helping us become more effective changemakers. We can listen for their underlying needs, where they get their information, and what triggers or inspires them. And often, others can teach us something new about an issue that we hadn’t previously considered.
  6. Emphasize your own stories.
    People have mixed reactions to facts and statistics, no matter how accurate and credible they may be. But what they can’t argue with are our own experiences. Using our own stories as a springboard to talk about issues can decrease defensiveness and build bridges – as well as educate.
  7. Practice good compassionate communication.
    One of the most effective skills we can cultivate is compassionate, effective communication, which includes practices such as listening to learn instead of respond, inspiring critical thinking, and offering positive solutions.
  8. Follow up with them.
    Often, the perfect thing to say or a really useful resource can come to mind hours – or days – after a conversation. Following up with people after a conversation can be a great way to continue the discussion, clarify or correct something we said (or wanted to say), and provide them with additional information or useful resources. There’s no reason we have to operate as if we have one shot to make a difference with someone. Often we have many opportunities.
  9. Reflect and keep practicing
    When the interaction is over, reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Research information (and credible sources) you didn’t know, think about what you might have said differently, and consider what you observed. And then practice. Practice by yourself, with loved ones, and by continuing to engage in conversations with others.

We changemakers put a lot of pressure on ourselves and often fall short of the “perfect” interactions with others.

It’s important for us to remember that there is no “perfect” response or conversation and that we shouldn’t treat every encounter as a potential opportunity to educate others.

One of our most important and effective tools is to strive to model our message of compassion in whatever we say and do. That in itself can go a long way in inspiring others.