BEMIDJI -- Talking it out can be tough.

Luckily, Bemidji State University’s Community Engagement Council came to the rescue during this month’s community conversations webinar event.

On Feb. 2, Amanda Gartner, a psychologist in the Student Center for Health and Counseling; Donna Pawlowski, a professor of communication studies; and Barb Houg, executive director of Bemidji’s Peacemaker Resources, addressed a virtual crowd with resources they can use to have those tough chats, focusing on helpful strategies for approaching difficult conversations.

The webinar was titled, “Talking It Out: Opening the Discussion on Difficult Conversations,” and panelists said the time was right for such a discussion -- talks may be tougher than ever with emotions high around politics, the coronavirus and more.

The event opened with a mindfulness breathing exercise before presenter Gartner explained how the practice of mindfulness could help people have more civil conversations.

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She gave what she described as a “very small snapshot of a broad topic,” explaining that mindfulness can mean allowing feelings to exist without letting them drive your actions and observing your life as it is happening, two things that can be helpful to remember if emotions run high during tense talks.

“This can promote greater control of our conversations, teaching us to be responsive and not reactive,” Gartner said.

These tough chats don’t just happen offline. Mindfulness can help conversations by helping participants choose to be responsive instead of reactive when sitting with strong emotion, particularly one prompted by a Facebook post, she explained.

“You can probably think of specific examples of that you saw posted on social media over the past year that likely brought immediate and strong emotional responses,” she said.

Gartner encouraged audience members to treat mindfulness like brushing their teeth -- something to make time for every day.

“Are you willing to spend three minutes a day for your mental health?” she asked. She suggested doing so by practicing “deep breathing techniques, positive affirmations, other exercises, yoga and tai chi, visualization exercises, even just engaging your five senses.”

Pawlowski then spoke about noticing and paying attention to all aspects of a conversation and asked audience members to visualize their last tough talk -- how the other person was responding, both verbally and nonverbally.

“Sometimes if we think about what we did in a previous conversation it gets us in that frame of mind of trying to reframe or restructure our next conversations,” she said, “(setting) the communication climate for those sticky conversations.”

“Visualize that situation at hand. A lot of times when we know we’re going to engage in a conversation, we get a little nervous,” Pawlowski continued. “I want you to visualize a positive outcome of that situation. What is it you really would like to do or say? How would you like the other person to react? Sometimes if we can visualize a positive outcome in a citation, that will help us to get to that goal.”

She encouraged people to examine and acknowledge their own biases before entering into a potentially volatile conversation. Pawlowski also recommended that people better examine what the goals of their conversations are: better understanding between two people with opposing views? To appreciate others’ points of view? To take action?

Knowing this will help to better communicate those desires.

She stressed the importance of choosing the right time to have these conversations as well -- right when someone walks through the door or when someone is working on their phone may not be the ideal setting.

Houg then spoke about the work of Peacemaker Resources and reaching people early -- as children -- to better learn how to listen, converse respectfully and understand.

She discussed the STAR program --Students Teaching Attitudes of Respect -- which was initially developed by Peacemaker Resources and the Northwest Minnesota Foundation to increase the social and emotional skills of sixth and seventh graders while teaching them how to present those skills to their families, peers and younger children.

Future events

In the coming weeks, BSU’s Community Engagement Council will host more Zoom events as a part of its community conversation series.

On Feb. 23, an event focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the community will be hosted by Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince, Bemidji School Board Member Gabriel Warren, AIRC Executive Director Chrissy Koch, and Bemidji City Council member Audrey Thayer. The webinar will take place at 4:30 p.m.

On March 16 at 4:30 p.m., BSU Community Conversations will have its fourth event titled: “Understanding Inequality and Social Justice Through an Intersectional Lens.” The webinar will be delivered by Mary Romero, a professor emerita of justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She served as the 110th President of the American Sociological Association and is a recipient of the Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award, Latina/o Sociology Section Founders Award, Julian Samora Distinguished Career Award, the Section on Race and Ethnic Minorities Founder’s Award, and the Study of Social Problems Lee Founders Award.

These sessions are held on Zoom and open to the public.