Tough Conversations

By Leonora Zilkha Williamson 

As the calendar turns toward the next election, I think often of a dinner I tried to organize five years ago with two childhood friends (we’re all nearing 50 and spent youthful summers on the beach). The effort failed because of politics. One friend, an ardent liberal, refused to break bread with the other, a lifelong conservative and suspected Trump supporter. 

This incident continues to rankle, as I observe increasingly that people view one another as indistinct from their politics. I see this troubling trend everywhere, from colleagues and clients to the classrooms here at Vanderbilt where I teach negotiation strategies to undergraduates. My course focuses heavily on teaching students to collaborate, and the following three basic techniques could prove equally instructive in navigating a divided dinner party or weathering this election season.  

1. Differentiate between positions and interests. A position is what you say, and an interest is what you care about. Digging in on a position usually closes doors, while being honest about an interest generally opens them. Anyone who has parented a teenager (or for that matter anyone who has survived their teenage years) knows the difference instinctively. “You can’t go to the movies with your friends tonight” is a position almost guaranteed to send your teen into a rage. By contrast, “I hear that seeing your friends tonight is important, and I also really miss you and am hoping that we can spend time together tonight” is an interest that invites problem-solving. Your teen could respond, “Gotcha. Can we have an early dinner before I head to the movies with my friends?” Strongly held positions escalate conflict, while honestly stated interests promote collaboration and joint problem-solving. 

2. Live by the 10 percent right rule. I am a staunch believer in a woman’s right to have an abortion and am personally distraught by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. While I have not yet actually discussed the topic with someone who does not share my views, I know when this situation arises, my emotions will run high. I can foresee us quickly falling back into our entrenched, passionately held positions, with any “discussion” devolving into a situation with each of us simply restating our opinions over and over at increasingly loud volumes.

Whether around the dinner or board room table, we have all been in one of those circular arguments that produce high blood pressure and strained relations without yielding any sort of conclusion. Enter the “10 percent right rule,” which says that any person, no matter how much we dislike them or disagree with them, is probably 10 percent right. If we can push ourselves to find that 10 percent, we can start building agreement — however small. In the abortion example, the hypothetical fight would have a completely different tenor and outcome if we each agreed that we would never see eye-to-eye on this most contentious of issues, but we acknowledged that we both believe deeply in the importance of protecting women’s and children’s health.

3. You have two ears and one mouth—communicate in that ratio. Despite all our life experience to the contrary, many of us continue to believe that repeating our opinions louder and in different words will magically persuade the listener to see things our way. No matter how many times this strategy fails us, whether in business or personal relationships, most of us easily fall back into the trap. 

The most effective persuaders and negotiators, however, listen well and use their patiently cultivated understanding of the other side’s position to craft agreement. If my liberal friend had actually sat down to dinner with our conservative friend five years ago and listened, he likely would have learned that all three of us had more in common than not—way more than 10 percent. Having dined with them both separately numerous times since 2016, I know this to be fact. Finding a toehold of agreement through listening enables us to gradually tackle more contentious issues with a success under our belt and quieter voices.  

Of course, these three tips are not the silver bullets to return our society to one where civil discourse is the norm. But I haven’t given up on that dinner party and look forward to practicing what I preach often as elections grow closer. 


About the author: 

Leonora Zilkha Williamson is an adjunct assistant professor in Vanderbilt's undergraduate Business Studies program teaching Negotiation and Corporate Social Responsibility/ESG. Her “day job” is founder of Platinum Rule Advisors, an executive coaching firm serving family-owned businesses and the leadership teams around them. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School, Williamson carries two passports, speaks five languages and has lived in eight countries. She was named Nashville’s No. 1 Executive Coach in 2021 and 2022 by Influence Digest and is a Nashville Business Journal 2022 Women of Influence honoree. She lives in West Nashville with her two daughters and her golden retriever, Scout.