The Search Bar Podcast

Latest episodes

Why are difficult conversations important?

Sep 21, 2023, 12:11 PM
Title : Why are difficult conversations important?
Url :
Media a d a title : Link to podcast episode on YouTube called "How can I reduce my family's screen time?"
Media contact name : University Communications
Media contact email :
Spotify url :
Apple podcast url :
Google podcast url :
Duration : 22 minutes
Originally published : Sep 21, 2023, 11:30 AM


Why is it so hard to have difficult conversations about uncomfortable or polarizing issues? And what are some of the best and worst things you can say when disagreeing with someone?

Get answers to some of the most asked questions surrounding difficult conversations.

Guest: Nikita Murry, director of diversity education at Central Michigan University




Adam: Why is it so hard to talk about uncomfortable or polarizing issues? And what are some of the best and worst things that you can say when you disagree with someone? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. Bypass Google and sidle up to the search bar instead. As Central Michigan University's amazing team of experts answers some of the Internet's most asked questions. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and on today's episode, we're searching for answers on how to have difficult conversations. Nikita Murry, director of diversity education at Central Michigan University is here to help us do just that.

Thanks for coming in today, Nikita. I'm looking forward to having a difficult conversation because we're going to talk about difficult conversations or maybe we're going to make it an easy conversation about difficult conversations. Instead, what might be good to do is talk a little bit about your background when it comes to this topic. Why is this something that you're passionate about? How have you arrived at a place where wanting to facilitate folks into having more productive conversations? Where does that come from for you?

Nikita: I look back at it beginning with my journalism career, so having a background in journalism and as a part of that, just really focusing on telling the stories of people whose stories either weren't told or having to make boring stories interesting. That's the flip side, but then just trying to find a meaning in what people had to say. And from that point, I've just connected to every career that I've had, so moving from journalism into counseling, into diversity, equity, and inclusion work where we're focused on creating these spaces of belonging and social justice and as a part of all of those things, it's about elevating voice and hearing things that we may not want to hear, but hearing it and taking it in any way. And so that's the challenging part of it. And so everything that I've done has just connected in that kind of way. Whether I was writing about a baseball game where a high schooler dropped a major catch in the sixth inning that turned the tide in a game, sometimes we do things in life that cost our team the game and we got to talk about that stuff.

How do you communicate without being judgmental?

Adam: You have to be good at having a difficult conversation with folks because usually when there's two diametrically opposed sides to a story you're working on, there's usually not a villain in these issues. When you go talk to the person who's on the other side, they're not like, haha, I'm just doing this to make that person mad. Most of the time they're not. So when people aren't agreeing, they're generally two people who think that they're doing the right thing or two parties, or two organizations that think that they're doing the right thing. You have to kind of ask why in a way that isn't offering judgment to that individual, that individual organization.

Nikita: No one wants to believe that they're the bad guy, basically no one wants to believe that they are the person who dropped the ball even when you drop the ball. So everybody has a perspective, and as a culture, we've never really focused on hearing another person's perspective and just allowing that to be so, no judgment, no assessment, no consequence to it, just this is another person's perspective. And so we get to learn from people in that way when we allow it to happen, but there's so much of our society historically is connected to there being an unpleasant consequence of allowing that to happen, and so we shy away from it or we just flat out reject it. And so what we spend a lot of time here doing, even on campus and through our work, is just creating these spaces where not just students, but students, faculty, staff, anybody who interacts with CMU feels safe enough to be a part of a dialogue even when it's a hard dialogue to have. You can look at different disciplines within our society where we don't really allow that to happen in the way in which it could. You would think it would happen in journalism, but it doesn't.


What's the difference between having an argument and engaging in dialogue?

Adam: When I was in J school (journalism school), shout out to Dr. Carol Schlagheck, I remember it. It stuck with me forever. She said, if they're yelling, it's not journalism anymore. And I feel like we have accepted a lot of forms of journalism that are yelling, and I feel like that's also informed the way that we have discourse with each other.

Nikita: When you have credibility and you take it into something else, people start to interpret that something else as being credible too and not really critique it in the way that they might have normally. Right? When we think about some of the old school or OGs, as the students would say, who used to do the news and who used to give us information, now we get our information from any place and we don't really have the tools to understand it and question it or even know that we should be questioning it. Part of learning journalism in the past and just what information was conversation was and dialogue was knowing that we had the ability to question it, almost the expectation that we would question it, and now we don't. We just take it all in as truth.

Adam: Maybe somebody you disagree with has a really good reason to disagree with you, but if your only impetus is to hear things that confirm your initial gut feeling you're never really going to learn to have a conversation with another person if you can't have it with yourself.

Nikita: Absolutely. And I think about it in terms of the emperor has no pants, which I've switched into, "You've got toilet paper on the back of your shoe," and so we don't want to be told that we have toilet paper on the back of our shoe and we don't want to be left walking around with toilet paper on the back of our shoe and no one says anything to us. We've really struggled with understanding that dialogue doesn't have to mean danger. Dialogue just simply means, I am going to sit and I'm going to hear from you and I'm going to actively listen with you to whatever you have to say, no matter how distasteful it might be, just by purpose of what it is, debate is set up for somebody in an exchange to lose because that's all you're focusing on is countering what that other person has to say, so you're really not listening to learn from what they're trying to say. You're listening to counter and gain a point on what they had to say.

Adam: That debate culture is also that online has become a real extension of what evening news is a lot of panels arguing now and then the term my son uses is debate Bross. It's like people who get on Zoom meetings and they argue politics and things, and it's not necessarily about finding common ground, it's about shutting somebody else down as quickly as possible. With the serotonin rush you get when somebody you agree with does that, I think it kind of supersedes whether you got to any subtleties of common ground or whether you even started to understand the other perspective more. To be clear, I'm saying that going, you don't have to change your mind, but if you haven't gained any understanding of the person on the other side of the debate, what was the value of the debate?

Nikita: What was the point? You're right, just a bunch of people in a room just letting off some air and letting the adrenaline go up, and then what? Go have a beer, but it didn't solve anything. It didn't change anything. It didn't advance us forward in any way.

What's a good way to start a difficult conversation? 


Adam: What is a good way to start a difficult conversation? Either I'll give a very loose hypothetical for you. Either I have to have a conversation with somebody that I have a personal relationship about something that's tough or something I know we're going to disagree on. How do I facilitate having a conversation in a way that's going to be productive? What are the things I should do to set up that conversation or to drive it forward?

Nikita: We think about neutrality and that's not always possible, so you can't always be in a quote neutral space, but placement does matter. So where you have these conversations matter how you think about your own mindset going into it makes a difference to be able to have the quality of dialogue you want to have, especially when you know that there is some difficulty involved. It's helpful to just reset yourself and make sure that those buttons that are there for you that could be pushed are addressed for you, so you can go into it not looking to have an argument or ramped up. So here's a good scenario, and this is why I'm chuckling to myself. If you know that you want to have a difficult conversation with somebody, you might want to listen to jazz instead of Tupac going into it, and I could joke about that, but there's some seriousness to that too. And so how you attend to yourself going in matters because then that allows you to set the stage with the other person to help them to know that this is something that I think we both could benefit from talking about. It might pinch a little bit. I want to acknowledge that upfront and I want to say it's not pleasant for me to have to say it, but I think we both would grow from having this conversation.

Adam: I want to have this conversation with you. Are you ready to have that?

Nikita: Do you want to have this as well?

Adam: Right? Because ambushing somebody is probably not going to work.

Nikita: not good, and then set the stage. I won't say the ground rules because that makes it too structured, set the safety setting, I would say, to help the other person know that we could stop this conversation at any point. You have just as much voice as I do in this conversation or in this engagement and say what you believe that you have to say, but it's important for everybody to understand that the best intentions are on the table. So I'm not coming into this with the intention of hurting you, Adam. I'm coming into this with the intention of talking about something that we both need to talk about. I wouldn't even think of it in terms of confronting. So our words and how we use and how we think about words, even if we don't intend it that way, it makes a difference because if we're going to have a conversation or if we're going to have a dialogue about something that's important, I'm not confronting you about it. That's something different. That's more along the discussion, and debate. We might fight at the end of this, and when we have something that's important to discuss, we're going into it with restoration in mind as opposed to confrontation in mind.

Adam: And that's what stops it from spilling into becoming an argument, right? 

Nikita: Exactly. Just because there is a lack of agreement, it doesn't mean that we are opposed to one another. It doesn't mean that we are enemies. It doesn't mean that we have to fight, and yet that's the script or that's the narrative that we've been given and we operate from it. There are a lot of things that we disagree on. I'm sure there are things that you and I could name sitting here that we probably would disagree about, but that doesn't mean that I'm using those things to make a decision about your personhood or your character or your intellect any of those things. It's hard to bring in rational thinking sometimes. An example I would use is our work in equity, inclusion, belonging, and even at the local level, education and the welfare of children and how they develop as human beings has become such a political issue.

And so you have a segment of our society saying, well, we don't want our kids to worry about DEI and we don't want DEI in our schools, and so here's someone like myself and I don't have children in school, but my response is, so you don't want kids to learn about how to be inclusive, how to help others belong, how to be equitable in treating others and what that means for them and what that looks like for them to be treated equitably. You're saying you don't want kids to learn how to create space where everybody belongs really, and so even when you put it in that context for people, no, they don't have an answer and they don't want to hear, they don't want to have a dialogue about it. Even when you think about it from a human-to-human perspective, it makes absolutely no sense what eight-year-old doesn't want to belong.

If you think about when you were eight and you didn't get an invitation to Joe Smith's birthday party, but everybody else in the class did that had an impact on you, absolutely. That's belonging and that's inclusion. If we stop yelling at each other long enough to connect those two things, then we could kind of see the absurdity in pushing back against something that talks about spaces that allow people to be the best version of themselves and understanding that it doesn't cost me anything for that to happen, but when I'm able to sit down with you and have that dialogue and understand your fears and your concerns rational or irrational, then I'm better able to engage with you around those. But if I'm not even interested in hearing what you have to say, we're never going to get to that place where we can understand why there isn't agreement and then what needs to happen in order to create a better agreement.

I'll say the lens through which I see a lot of things happening is around what we call cognitive dissonance in counseling, and when you think about our current society and a lot of the pushback that you're seeing around dialogue and around the things that we want to talk about in terms of social justice, belonging, equity, all of that, it's rooted in cognitive dissonance in that people are confronted with this new knowledge about how our society really is, how our country really is, the history of it and what that means for them as individuals. And sometimes people don't like it. It's like standing in front of the mirror with your favorite pair of pants on and suddenly discovering that they're too tight because you've gained weight. Now you could say, oh, I've gained weight. I've got to do something about this. Or you can just be in denial and want to kick the mirror in because you don't like the picture of you standing there with some too-tight pants on.

Adam: Like the mirror did it to you.

Nikita: Like the mirror did it to you. Exactly. And so that's what we're seeing people kicking at the mirror instead of looking at the process leading up to, Hey, my pants are too tight.

What are some of the best and worst things you can do when preparing for a difficult conversation?

Adam: If you're somebody who's trying to be better at facilitating dialogue with individuals or with groups, what are some signs that you're doing it wrong? What are things you should look out for and avoid either in preparing for that conversation or while you're in it? How do we avoid taking that left turn into a place that's not productive?

Nikita: If you find yourself not listening to the other person if you find yourself preparing your response even before the person is finished saying what they're saying, if you find yourself arguing or elevating, you probably want to take a step back because you're about to lose what you're trying to accomplish in a dialogue. And it doesn't mean that we don't become passionate because we do, and there's nothing wrong with passion, but the passion that turns into yelling and hurtful words and disrespectful words, then that's something different.

Adam: You're not there to win. You're there to learn. Right?

Nikita: Right. Exactly. If my goal for having an exchange with someone is to win is to experience victory, is to wipe the floor with them. That says more about who I am as a person and my character. One of the most helpful things you can do going into a conversation where you believe it could be challenging or for sure that it will be challenging, is to think about your approach. So less you language and more I-focused language, and in some segments, we call them I statements, however you want to talk about it, make it more about how you experienced whatever it is that you want to talk about, and that takes the focus away from making someone believe that automatically that they're going to be scolded because they did something wrong, that you're not setting up blame. The other thing to do would be to think about how to extend grace, not just grace for the other person.

That's important, but also grace for yourself. So make sure that you are delivering what you have to deliver in a way that allows you to be heard, but also gives yourself some grace for saying what needs to be said. We don't always like to have challenging conversations, and so we avoid it as much as possible, even in our ability to be specific in what we have to talk about and then set a deadline to what you want to bring up. So don't bring up something 15 weeks ago if you didn't talk about it 15 weeks ago, make it about the right now or make it about the opportunity to see from a perspective, a pattern, and so you're delivering a whole cake.

Adam: That's kind of like that. What about is what that thing, what about that thing?

Nikita: Right, exactly. When you don't give as much attention to addressing things when they're occurring, it just builds up and it leaves the other person feeling as though they're being dumped on, and of course that's going to make a challenging conversation. All the more challenging, and it's going to eat at your opportunity to be heard because now you create this scenario where a person is just going back reflecting on everything that happened at that time and why you didn't say anything then, and so you've lost them when you build up and you dive into what about this or remember when. So I would say those are three main things, grace, timeliness, and consistency.

What are some tips for facilitating conversations to help people talk across differences? 

Adam: One more thing that I kind of wanted to touch on was if you are feeling uncertain that it's okay to talk about a certain topic, you're uncomfortable with an issue, maybe it's a really hot-button issue, maybe it is race or gender or politics, it's one of these things that you know the person across from you may or may not agree on, and you're just uncertain, but you know that it's important. What's something that a person who needs to facilitate the conversation can do? Is there preparation you can do, or is there a way to preface that discussion in a way that will not make you feel so intimidated or unsure to do it?

Nikita: Sometimes we kind of back away from having conversations or dialogue that's important to us because we're afraid either how we will be perceived or how what we have to say will be received, and that's normal because we can't anticipate how another person will respond. At the same time, we cheat ourselves when we don't take advantage of the opportunity to talk about something that's really important, even if we take it outside of the academic environment or the work environment and apply it to our personal lives because that's where everything begins for us. We don't show up at work or we don't show up in the classroom as this other person. We bring who we are into those spaces, and so if we can just practice making it a practice to talk about things that are important to us with those people who matter to us the most, that then enables us to have those types of higher level dialogues with other people over other issues because it's become embedded in who we are as communicators and as people.

And so if you can talk to your partner about something that really matters and it will matter to both of you, then you can also talk to your boss about something that matters because you know that the world is not going to collapse in on you, and you've seen how it could be beneficial. If we make a practice of avoiding even small conversations, we don't know what we're avoiding. It could be we don't know what we're missing. That could be much bigger than if we had attended to it earlier, it could have changed the entire trajectory for someone else or for us as individuals.

Adam: Right. Or you might be enabling something that is damaging to somebody around that person. They don't even realize it.

Nikita: And don't even realize it.

Adam: Yeah. Have a dialogue consistently when appropriate. Do it across your life.

Nikita: Yes.

Adam: Awesome. Well, Nikita, thank you so much. It's been a great conversation, but not a difficult one today.

Nikita: Thanks for having me here.

Adam: Thanks for stopping by The Search Bar. Make sure that you like and subscribe so that you don't have to search for the next episode.

On a gold-colored background, Adam Sparkes (left) and Nikita Murray (right) talk into microphones. Between them, a white text box with words written in maroon say Debate vs Dialogue.
Load more comments
Login to be able to comment
Comment by from

Meet your host

Adam Sparkes is a nearly 20-year veteran of commercial, editorial, news and travel photography. A lover of news, pop culture, board games and gluten-free pizza, Adam is eternally curious to learn about anything and everything.

In addition to his role as host for “The Search Bar,” Adam serves as CMU’s associate director of multimedia and photography where he can be found crawling on the ground or sprinting down the sidelines to get the perfect shot.

Be a guest
A bearded man wearing glasses, a sport coat, red shirt and headphones sits in front of a microphone at a table. A Fire Up Chips banner hangs on a maroon backdrop in the background.