Families & the Community Opinion

A Guide to Diffusing Charged Conversations With Parents

Sometimes it’s best just to listen
By Irshad Manji — November 19, 2021 4 min read
Scientific illustration of a bird and a fish, and a 3rd species of bird fish
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I’m in the business of equipping people to heal the divides that are tearing us apart. Right now, business is booming. Frankly, I’m working for the day when I can close shop because enough of us have learned to engage productively in the face of fervent disagreement.

My nonprofit, Moral Courage ED, teaches students and their educators the skills to hear—not fear—different perspectives. Given how easily issues get politicized, and polarized, now, it’s not surprising that the chasms educators tell me about run the gamut. Vaccine mandates—pro or con? Masks—effective or not? Gender identity—biological or constructed? Critical race theory—a path to justice or a revival of “just us”? I can sum up the struggle educators are managing (particularly with angry parents) in one question: “Should I stand my ground or should I seek common ground?”

To all exhausted educators, let me offer some good news: You don’t have to choose between one or the other. On almost any polarizing subject, you can both stand your ground and seek common ground by replacing the “either/or” paradigm with the “both/and” lens. I call this the Moral Courage Method of communicating.

Popular culture defines moral courage as speaking truth to power. But popular culture also pushes the narrative that power only exists “out there”—with the tech titans, the media moguls, the politicians, the police, the protestors, The System.

Reality is that power also exists within us—specifically, within the ego that arises from our primitive brain. The ego’s job is to keep us alive. In a life-or-death situation, it instantly tells us to fight, freeze, or flee. When that happens, the ego is our best friend.

Most other times, though, the ego is an overprotective parent. It strives to shield us from reasonable risks because it can’t easily distinguish between mortal danger and mere discomfort. Therefore, even decent people get stressed, fearful, and defensive when they encounter uncomfortable views.

Then add this fact: Today, we’re immersed in technologies that are deliberately designed to rile up our emotional ego-brains. The result? Not only rampant disagreement but also brazen disgust with one another.

More than ever, moral courage means speaking truth to the ego’s power so that we learn from multiple perspectives and cultivate buy-in for lasting solutions. If it sounds naive to speak about solutions that endure, remember: Many of our divides are artificial. Take, for example, the blithe assumption that we have to choose between social justice and free speech. That’s a false choice born of either/or framing. When we adopt the both/and frame, an intriguing solution emerges: We can have free speech and social justice.

Today, we’re immersed in technologies that are deliberately designed to rile up our emotional ego-brains.

Allow me to illustrate. I’m a Muslim. Besides being part of a faith community, I’m also an individual with my own experiences, ideas, and opinions. No other Muslim thinks exactly as I do. And so it goes for the rest of humanity—straight white men, too!

When we recognize that diversity exists within as much as between groups, we’re compelled to make room for others to express their individuality. Some perspectives will challenge my ego. Others will flatter it. But I must tame my ego-brain to listen rather than assume I know what someone else thinks based on the pigeonholes into which I’ve stuffed that person.

Consider the seemingly irreconcilable differences between COVID-19 vaxxers and anti-vaxxers. Where relationships haven’t already been poisoned, can conversation preempt confrontation? A physician and nurse in Montreal suggest it can.

The nurse, Monique Dupriez, had reacted badly to a childhood inoculation. Decades later, her infant daughter died when the little girl’s body rebelled against a vaccine. Dupriez prepared to take early retirement rather than take the mandated COVID shot.

Until Dr. Ingrid Marchand, her hospital colleague, listened to the nurse’s concerns. Listened, that is, to understand, not to win. Marchand invited questions from Dupriez and addressed them one by one, over several weeks.

By resisting the ego’s impulse to turn their discussions into debates, the doctor showed a “both/and” attitude: The nurse’s fears could be both legitimate and surmountable. At the same time, the doctor’s sincere efforts to hear Dupriez motivated the nurse to reciprocate. And, finally, to get jabbed out of optimism, instead of stigma.

Of course, they started with a common interest: their devotion to patients (and patience). In any context, educators and parents can invoke their shared dedication to kids—a solid foundation on which to build trust. The key is to be the first listener. As with the doctor and the nurse, it typically takes only one party to lower their emotional defenses for the other to follow suit.

Which brings me back to my point that you can stand your ground and seek common ground. Standing your ground is about what you believe. Seeking common ground is about how you express what you believe. Genesis Be, a mentee of mine, picked up on the power of that distinction while advocating a new flag for her home state of Mississippi. She learned that an acquaintance, Louis McFall, wanted to keep the Confederate battle emblem in the flag. So, she brought McFall to her backyard, pulled up a chair, and asked him to tell her more.

He did.

Along the way, McFall felt “respected”—heard without feeling that Be needed to agree with him. Unexpectedly, he connected more deeply to this budding friendship than to the flag itself. Two years after their first conversation, and in no small part because of relationships like the one between Be and McFall, Mississippians replaced the Stars and Bars with a flag that honors everyone’s humanity.

America needs truth and reconciliation. None of us has a monopoly on the former. Achieving the latter will require moral courage—the ability to remind our ego that listening is not losing. And more often than we may want to recognize, therein lies the solution: When we understand, we actually win.

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