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A CLEAR approach to difficult conversations — and conversationalists

More meaningful conversations and relationships are possible.

It doesn’t take a stormy political event to find oneself in a barbed conversation — but it certainly increases the odds. At this moment in the United States, tension will surely accompany a presidential inauguration celebrated by some and dreaded by others.

A conversational model developed by Loma Linda University Health experts offers help navigating interpersonal encounters. Called the CLEAR Whole Person Care® Model, its guidelines were developed through a rigorous five-year process involving intense interdisciplinary collaboration.

CLEAR stands for Connect, Listen, Explore, Acknowledge and Respond.

Learn more about each step with these tips from Carla Gober-Park, PhD, director of the Center for Spiritual Life and Wholeness at Loma Linda University Health.

Worry not if you feel daunted at first; these principles can quickly become second nature, as well as a source of greater fulfillment in your relationships.

 

Connect: Connect intentionally with God, self and others

Before interacting with others, it is imperative to first connect with God and then one’s self.

“Whether in your home, before going into a room, or before a meeting, first stop and let God talk with you for a moment,” Gober-Park says. “Second, pause for a moment with yourself to gain a sense of calm and openness. If you don’t, if you come into the conversation feeling fragmented, it will increase the other person’s fragmentation.”

After making those two connections, it is time to turn your full attention to your conversation partner.

“Connecting means you are interested and willing to see people for who they are and to hear what they really think — recognizing and putting aside your biases. Observe not only their words but their body language and environment. Sense their wounds,” Gober-Park explains.

Two individuals may stridently disagree about a political figure or law, she points out, but they can still connect on the level of sharing the underlying hopes and fears that inform their opinions.

Listen: To be fully present in a sacred time of sharing

True listening requires a commitment of time to be silent and let another person speak uninterrupted. But be not intimidated; it is OK to set boundaries and let the other person know you soon have another appointment or obligation. 

Even brief moments of pure listening open the door to greater understanding.

“When we give another person 30 to 60 seconds of uninterrupted time, it allows us to hear the nuances of what he or she is saying,” Gober-Park states. “Listen with your whole being, and you can discover shared points of understanding or at least respond to the true substance of what they are saying.”

Create a safe atmosphere while you listen by holding off judgment. If the speaker fears your disapproval, he or she is unsafe to go to a deeper place of sharing. But it is also OK to put forth the boundary that there are certain topics you are uncomfortable entering discussion about, Gober-Park says.

For example, a person with a pre-existing medical condition may state he or she is uncomfortable discussing health care reform.

Explore: Invite whole person conversations

Once you have truly heard another person — seeing them as a whole person with complex needs and gifts — a conversation’s potential to grow in significance is ripe for exploration. Recognize the individual as a bio-psycho-social-spiritual being.

"Caring about all aspects of a person allows you to take conversation to a deeper and more meaningful place. You must bring your whole self to the interaction, showing you care about the topic and what it reveals about the other person," Gober-Park explains.

An explorative conversation requires one to be observant to cues and hints, underlying issues and revealing non-sequiturs.

“Seek to understand what gives that person meaning and a reason for being,” Gober-Park says.

Even a potentially treacherous political conversation can lead to a deeper meeting of minds about values, hopes and the things one holds most dear.

Acknowledge: To empathize and communicate understanding

This can be a difficult step, Gober-Park notes. It takes the effort of striving for empathy.

Validate that what the other person has said is important to him or her before you respond or disagree.

“Avoid clichés,” Gober-Park says. “Acknowledge their pain or their opinions without judgment. Own up to your limitations when you haven’t experienced what the other person is going through. State that you accept and hear what the other person is saying even if you can’t relate to it.”  

Respond: To share resources, affirm strength and offer hope

“Only after you have connected, listened, explored and acknowledged should you respond,” Gober-Park says. “But it is possible to move through the steps quickly.”

The goal of your response should be to affirm the good in your conversation partner and share what you can bring to the situation.

First, acknowledge their strengths. Even if you disagree with their opinion, recognize something positive in their thought process (or, to be topical, their political party). Second, remember that you are what you bring: the way you look, behave, speak or offer a prayer communicates who you are and what you believe. Third, when appropriate, suggest that the two of you turn to an outside resource, such as a trusted source of information or a person in a position to help.

And when it’s over …

“Reflect on how the conversation was for you,” Gober-Park suggests. “Ask yourself if you were fair in your responses or did anything to offend the other person. Perhaps journal about it. Pray about it.”

When seeking divine wisdom about how to grow in your interactions with others, Gober-Park advises to reflect on what you believe God to be telling you by holding it up to the Bible, considering it in the light of your relationship with God through time, and discussing it with trusted confidants when needed.