Years ago, I conducted leadership workshops with student groups in schools. The goal was to find agreement among leaders of various student groups and come up with solutions to issues facing the schools.

I would start by asking, “Do you think that the way you are situated in this conversation will have any impact on the results you get today?” The room was always set up as a traditional classroom with all chairs facing the front. “I am leaving the room to let you think about this question, and I’ll return in seven minutes to see what conversational geometry you have decided on.”

Groups inevitably came up with a single pattern—a circle. When asked why they chose the circle, they would reply, “Because in a circle we can look each other in the eye. We’re all equal, and we all matter.”

Cliquish gatherings and the resulting views and tension with other cliques serve as a good analogy for what ails our society. The conversations we have need to move beyond the preconceived stereotypes of groups and individuals before we can make progress.

Several years ago, one of my sons, who readily admitted to having an argumentative nature, told me about an exercise he was required to participate in during a social studies class. His teacher handed out a list of inflammatory social issues and instructed each student to take a position on the topics. After taking their positions, students were then instructed to build an argument for the opposing point of view. After the expected objections, both moral and intellectual, the students began mining views they had never before dared to consider. Being forced to build an argument on behalf of a view they found offensive stretched their capacity for thinking, understanding and civility.

It was not only a mind-expanding exercise for the students but also an epiphany regarding POV: Namely, people have very good reasons—experience and observations stacked together—that influence their views. The fact that an individual does not sympathize with those views should not prevent that person from comprehending or attempting to understand another person’s view. If nothing else, this shift in attitude demonstrates our respect for the other party in the conversation and enables us to have a meaningful dialogue.

As part of the exercise, my son had to formulate arguments for legalizing prostitution, drug use and other libertarian-leaning arguments. I asked him if he really believed what he was arguing for.

“No,” he replied. “But it helps to understand the people who do.” It was about learning to disagree without being disagreeable. It was about engaging in dialogue to understand why someone believed what they believed—even if you didn’t.

Understanding is the point of conversation, and the reason for dialogue. Our obsession with airing our own views eventually causes conversations to devolve into presentations, arguments and sometimes something much worse.

When you sit down to have a dialogue—having already resolved that the other person will leave the conversation with satisfaction, if not agreement—the natural result is the ability to hear and see from his or her point of view.

Impactful dialogue and the resulting understanding cannot be reached until you broaden your perspective to see the situation from someone else’s vantage point, thus expanding your own. Once you are committed to truly understanding where the other party is coming from, you are in a better position to make contact in a real and meaningful way. And when you make that contact, positive change is sure to follow.  

Mitch Anthony is the creator of Life-Centered Planning, the author of 12 books for advisors, and the co-founder of and

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