November 19, 2020

Virginia Public Media (VPM), the Richmond-based affiliate of NPR and PBS, has partnered with StoryCorps to host meaningful one-on-one conversations among people with different perspectives. The initiative, called One Small Step, asks for volunteers and, based on a few responses, pairs them with someone for a conversation about their differences. The conversations are then broadcast with permission and archived in the Library of Congress.

The idea is to learn from each other, to understand the history or perspective that has helped form an opinion or a belief in the other person. The big goal is to help rebuild respect and trust among our communities as we battle the physical, emotional and social distances of the pandemic and racial injustice.

Anyone can volunteer and submit an entry to the initiative. (Click here if you are interested.) But what if? What if we just started having those conversations? With the person you don’t understand or who you believe misunderstands you, or the colleague with whom you are never on the same page, or the neighbor you haven’t spoken to because of the political sign in their yard, or the long lost friend with whom you’d like to reconnect.

The opportunity for a learning conversation is everywhere; however, it is a practiced skill to recognize and navigate the moment. Here are some actionable steps to make conversations of growth and discovery a part of your norm:

  • Make sure the other person is interested and willing. Directly ask if they’d be open to a conversation about each other’s perspectives.
  • Be cognizant of the right timing. Fuming or frustrated is not the right moment; set something up in advance like a virtual cup of coffee or a walk in the park.
  • Know what you want to understand better and be prepared with a few questions to initiate the dialogue. Be open and honest with your answers so they can understand clearly as well.
  • Don’t be too attached to directing the conversation; allowing it to unfold will offer even more insight.
  • Respect their perspective; this isn’t the moment to counter or change their mind. Simply to learn.
  • Most of all, listen. Really focus on hearing them for what they are sharing. Ultimately you may never agree, but you have heard their “why.”

If we make a deliberate effort to resist conversations that are “shouting, arguing and convincing” and refocus on conscious dialogue that is “learning, listening and respecting,” we can begin to heal and rebuild.