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How to Communicate When You Don't Agree

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Latin America and human rights are very close to my heart, and I’ve worked with nonprofits who advocate in these areas for 5+ years. I’ve known of the Commission (IACHR) for a long time, but hadn’t attended any hearings before, so I figured it was time to go and see how this process works!

The subject of this particular hearing: human rights and environmental concerns around a proposed mega-project to build a canal through Nicaragua, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In addition, concerns were raised about how quickly the project was “approved” and efforts were made to usher it forward, without information or opportunity for the people of Nicaragua to weigh in.

The debate was interesting, which I expected. What I hadn't predicted was how annoyed I would become with some of the players!

The biggest irritation for me was seeing the smug expression on the face of one of the representatives of the the canal project and Nicaraguan state. He was hearing the human rights defenders' testimony about the social and environmental problems they believe will arise from this transoceanic canal mega-project. He was seeing pictures of people who had been injured by repressive police while peacefully demonstrating against the project. All the while he sat quietly with a satisfied-looking smirk. I confess, I pretty much wanted to smack him.

It got me thinking: In communications, we don't always get to preach to the choir. Sometimes we have to confront people who don't agree with us. And sometimes we have to do it like these human rights defenders were -- face to face.

Yelling and hitting doesn't work. We learned this in preschool. So how do we put aside our differences and really communicate with someone when we obviously don't see eye to eye?

A couple of the skills I learned from yoga help me a lot.

First, I use my breath to calm myself down and clear my head. An extended exhale is nice, or alternate nostril breathing. These have an almost immediate impact (read: helps me resist the urge to punch the guy).

Then, I turn things around and try to see them from the other person's point of view. In yoga we do this with our physical bodies. And while it's not socially acceptable to bust out a handstand during a public hearing, I can do a little mental gymnastics to open my mind and try to imagine where he is coming from.

In this particular case, the canal guy was coming from the perspective of the economic benefit to Nicaragua: job creation, relations with other countries, etc. I recognize that side, and I don’t dismiss it, but I think it has to happen in a way that respects and involves the people who’ll be affected by it. So, if I were going to have a conversation with him myself, I’d frame it in terms of the economic value of protecting the environmental assets and the country’s fresh water supply, and the economic benefit of having a country at peace.

Turns out that like me, the Commission also sees the benefit of economic growth, but not at the expense of human rights. The hearing ended with an eye toward this intersection, and a request to the Commission to conduct an official visit to Nicaragua, yielding a detailed report on the scope and consequences of the project, which would inform a broad and transparent discussion.

So, back to the yoga skills. I can't promise they’ll work for every situation. Communication is always a two-way street, and we can only control our own side of it. But these tricks certainly won't hurt! Plus, who doesn't want to feel a little calmer?!