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'Tip #4: Listen and Meet People Where They Are' from Fierro Consulting: Inspiring People. Growing Organizations. Strengthening Communities.'s Blog

Tip #4: Listen and Meet People Where They Are

May 13, 2016
Category: Power Dynamics  Inclusive Conversations  Tips for inclusive conversations 
Author: Rita Fierro, Ph.D.

Do your conversations these days feel like black holes of despair that transform even the sweetest of donuts into booger-tasting jelly beans? If most conversations you have about these crazy primaries end up in fights and go nowhere, tip #4 is for you.  Inclusive conversations occur when differences are seen as a resource, not a threat. Previous tips included preparing the conversation, choosing when and where to invest your energyopening the door to the conversation and making allies. Today's tip is more about the actual conversation. Tip #4: No matter how insane you think people are to think the way they do, don't beat them down with what you know, try to pause, and meet them where they are, instead. But before I explain what I mean by: "meet people where they are," here's a little story for you.

Sunday dinner, with my family in Italy and we're discussing child prostitution. I was probably 20 years old. Yes, in my family this is what we talked about over Sunday dinner, along with everything else controversial, like war, politics, and inevitably, the corruption of the Catholic Church. The final cherry on the cake? The ethics and moral stature of our local priest. And this is where I got my Italian equivalent to what in the United States would be "debate team" training.

Here were our rules:

1) To get the stage, you had to yell louder and gesticulate bigger than everyone else.

2) Once you had the stage, you had 5-10 seconds to make your opening statement.

3) If your opening statement was persuasive, you could keep the stage for another minute, but only if you didn't get distracted by the five people who were revving up their motors to jump in.

4) If your opening statement was weak, you would lose the stage.

5) If you paused, you'd lose the stage.

6) If you stuttered, you'd lose the stage.

7) If you had the stage for a whole minute, or two (which meant you were a pro) you had to have a final punchline to end your point to win.

8) If you lost, someone would interrupt you.

9) If you won, someone would interrupt you.

Brutal rules, I know. It was our bonding time. Bonding through fire. Our Sunday dinners were notorious for being loud. Even with the doors closed, neighbors on the street could hear us arguing. And Grandmom's (Nonna’s) house is an earthquake-proof cement house in the open country-side and the street was a quarter a mile away. The men joked that they needed a traffic light to get a word in edgewise. We are a determined bunch of folks. We could run you down with words, any day, anytime of the week, just to be right. With this kind of training, I'm sure you're not surprised that conflict in my family is an everyday affair.

Hot peppers (that my grandmother planted) in front of her house in the countryside. The road borders the property. The houses in the distance are on that road.


But back to the child prostitution dinner. "You have to persecute the men, because the men are the clients, and without them there would be no..." my aunt yells. "Go after the traffickers, you know the mafia is allied with those crappy politicia..." my other aunt interrupts. "It's all the priest's fault", my uncle says, just to instigate the crowd. This is 15 years before the catholic sexual abuse scandals. The men in my family blame priests for everything. It is their weekly excuse for sleeping in on a Sunday morning instead of accompanying their wives to church.

An uncle who has been quiet so far and really hates the exponential volume of these conversations, finally screams: "What the hell do we care? Really? This doesn't affect us!" Perhaps this was an ill attempt to quiet things down but I was livid.

"It's that type of not-giving-a-damn-attitude that puts girls at constant risk…" I yelled. I listed every study on violence against women I could think of. I kept the stage for a whole two minutes. My heart was pounding as I was yelling at the top of my lungs. And then my last fatal blow:

"Let's see if you care if it happens to your own daughter." He was immediately offended and shut down. He got up and may have gone to the bathroom. Everyone else got up to clear the table. We dispersed. We moved on to talk about the mafia and the politicians' role in everything that is wrong with our country. I'm thankful for my brother who said to me that day: "You're right and you make good points, but your tone is so condescending no one will ever listen to you."


The view of my grandparents’ land and tobacco fields.

A few years later, someone told me something very similar. We were having dinner at my place in Rome, with some of my African friends. We had a fiery conversation about the United States' international imperialism. A dear friend said to me: "You know more than most people do about this stuff, but the way you talk, you push away people who could be allies, instead of helping them get curious to find out more." That's when it finally hit me. No one listens to what we say when how we say it makes them feel inferior.

After six years of college in Italy and six years of grad school in the United States studying the history of racism, discrimination, and exclusion all around the world, I had more material that most to offer a great, easy to win debate. Academia taught me to not win a debate by interrupting, but with logic: name the assumption your opposition is working from, display ample historical evidence that proves those assumptions to be wrong historically, move to how the historical evidence lives on today. Propose a solution. Final punch. It was a different tactic, but it created the same effect. There is a winner and a loser.

We are taught to debate this way in the academic world, it helps us establish credibility, prove we are qualified and gain self-confidence in what we know. But the systematic beating people down with evidence is not effective at helping people see another point of view or at making allies. Both parties in the conversation eventually walk away empty. The "loser" walks away feeling horrible about themselves. They also walk away feeling horrible about the world we live in. This person's curiosity is not stimulated. The apparent winner may feel an ego boost at first, but eventually feels disconnected and alone, depleted by the conversation too.

Great teachers know that they cannot teach a student unless they know first, what the student already knows. New knowledge depends on pre-existing knowledge. Communication specialists will tell you that that unless you know what your audience cares about, you cannot communicate effectively with them.

So for today's tip, instead of beating people down with the knowledge you have, try meeting people where they are. This expression is common so here are four ways I've learned to do this that I recommend:

1.   Find out what the person's current knowledge is on the topic.

2.   Find out what the person cares about in other aspects of their life.

3.   Give up any false sense of superiority and talk to them as peers.

4.   Prioritize the message with very few points and relatable examples.

5.   Relate your key points to the topics the other person cares about.

6.   Ask questions, before, during, and after. The conversation is not over once you make your point. There is no touchdown scoreboard.

7.   No matter how much you think you already know, make sure you learn something from the other person too.


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