Longest Table Tips for ‘Impossible Conversations’

Screen shot from a Zoom meeting, with Daryl Davis gesturing toward the screen.
The Longest Table 2020

By Katie DiSalvo-Thronson

Are you heading into some holiday conversations you already dread? Or wishing you could talk to someone about a position they hold that you deeply disagree with, but feel unsure how to do it? 

When you think about someone who voted differently than you in the last election, are you wondering, “can I even talk to them?”

Last month, Howard County Library System held The Longest (Virtual) Table with Daryl Davis, an exceptional man with a lot to say about having hard conversations. Davis is an internationally celebrated blues musician who has also led more than 200 KKK members to leave the organization through personal relationships and dialogue. He is motivated, as a Black man, by the question: “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”

Davis is the author of Klan-destine Relationships, the topic of a movie Accidental Courtesy, and an excellent podcast interviewee (see “The Silver Dollar Lounge” from 2014 and “How to Argue” from 2017).

At the Longest Table, Davis shared parts of his amazing story, reflections on recent events, and ideas on how to talk someone out of hate. His experiences can help us see that people – even those holding extremely problematic positions – are capable of change. His ideas can help us connect with people whose beliefs feel impossibly different than our own.

So what does Daryl Davis suggest? Here are some of his top points, paraphrased:

  • Remember we all want the same five things.
    People want to be loved, to be respected, to be heard, to be treated fairly, and they want the same things for their families that you want for yours.
  • Give respect and get respect.
    Ask questions. Listen. “While you are actively seeking information from someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself at the same time.” On social media, find a positive way to respond. The way you listen and respond will help people listen and respond to you.
  • Plant seeds as you engage in a long game.
    Give someone something to think about that troubles their world view. Then, engage again: “You must come back and water the seed – that’s the key.”
  • Lower their walls and keep them down.
    If you listen respectfully first, they will feel the need to listen to you next. “Defend yourself but don’t attack them,” and “keep your emotions in check.”

Davis’s approach demands intensive time and skill as well as self-control, and it may not be one we can all use all the time. His focus is not everyone’s: some people think it is more important to change policies and systems than to convert individual racists. However, we can all honor and appreciate that he has dedicated decades of his life to “putting a dent in racism,” along with his courage and selflessness in following this path. 

Like good music, Davis’ messages resonate well and widely. How could your ‘impossible conversations’ change by remembering shared humanity, showing respect, and teaching others with the example of how you live? Watch/listen to Daryl Davis in his own words today!

Katie is the Community Education and Engagement Manager for HCLS. She loves people, the big questions, the woods, and chocolate.

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