By the age of 24, Milan Kordestani had already founded four innovative companies and established himself as a thought leader for ethical business practices and sustainable innovation. His stated goal is to inspire his generation and those that follow to use the power of business and technology to make positive social changes that can lead to a better world for everyone.
Realizing this audacious goal hinges on teaching people with differing viewpoints to have constructive conversations. Kordestani combed communication research to learn how to accomplish this. The result is his first book, I’m Just Saying: A Guide to Maintaining Civil Discourse in an Increasingly Divided World.
In the following interview, Vision’s Gina Stepp explores what Kordestani has learned and how vital these communication skills are to finding solutions to both interpersonal problems and complex global issues.
GS We seem to be hovering at a height of outrage in public discourse, at least in Western culture, so it’s a good time for your book to come out. But was there anything in particular that made you feel it was time?
MK I created a publication [The Doe] and started to publish different stories—first-person perspectives. We published everything anonymously to remove all the ego, the stigma, of having your name on a piece. We got the most amazing stories out of people, and hundreds of people in the comment sections engaged with these really difficult topics. Sometimes they devolved into divisiveness and name-calling, and sometimes you’d get people saying, “Wow, this resonates well. This gives me perspective into a walk of life that I had never understood before and always just hated.”
There was no clear guidance on how we’re supposed to conduct ourselves digitally, especially in conversations that can sometimes be divisive. This book came from the idea that whether the conversations are digital or in person, whether they’re with family or at the political level, we want to be showing up to conversations better as individuals. All we can do is to try to find common ground, to understand people’s perspectives better, and to realize there are tools to help us do that. Ultimately, that’s why this book is in the anger management category; it’s about controlling how you respond to things. We can’t control everything else in the world. But how we show up in those conversations is how we end up finding common ground and creating a progressive society, rather than one that’s constantly deteriorating.
GS You’re saying that rather than being reactive, we need to be constructive by reaching out to see how we can connect, right? Are there some people who are connectors and some whose first response is, “Let me tell you what I disagree with in what you just said”?
MK I think it’s unconscious; we get in our own heads and think, well, what is my point? How do I walk out of this feeling better? But when we take a step back, we start to realize that every time we’re more concerned about being right than finding common ground or arriving at a civil solution, one person is going to leave that conversation feeling terrible. And usually that translates to us feeling a bit like that conversation was a loss.
We may ask, “Are we these people by default?” I want to say that we’re not. But as a culture and a society, we have to teach that we should care about how we’re responding to conversations; you should care that when you get angry and start to yell at someone, they feel terrible.
“I think most people do care, but it really is just the awareness that there’s another way, an alternative, and it’s better for society.”
GS Your book begins with some foundational concepts. Can you summarize them?
MK The foundations are reflection, intention, tone and trust. Reflection touches on the earlier point I was making about how we have to understand what “good conversation” is, or what excellence is. And that usually comes from understanding ourselves through reflection—thinking back on why the conversation I just had left me feeling terrible. Reflection allows you to gain perspective to show up better the next time.
The next concept is intention. Intention is important in so much in life, but especially in conversation—knowing why I’m making the point I’m making right now, why I’m defending this so vehemently. It’s really important to know our intentions, because sometimes we get hung up on something we’ve been defending for a long time. That blocks us from recognizing when new information has come our way via this person we’re speaking with, and that maybe our perspective should change a bit.
Third is tone, and I use the example of Fred Rogers, who was on television for a long time. He exemplified excellence in tone no matter who he was speaking to. He could speak to adults in Congress and get them to see his perspective, or he could speak to children and explain the most uncomfortable and difficult topics that parents struggle to talk to children about. A lot of that was his tone. The right tone can disarm so it doesn’t seem like you’re being combative or correcting the other person. But you are trying to understand their perspective, to see where they’re coming from. A lot of that is done through tone so the other person feels comfortable enough to open up, especially if they’re not focused on civil discourse; they’re just passively interacting with you.
The final point is trust. And trust in other people is really hard to cultivate. It’s done through great interactions with people over time—starting to understand that this person is a good-faith actor; they are reliable. Knowing I can find some sort of common ground with them on any topic, they’ll change their perspective or opinion as needed when presented with new information, and so will I. And we’re capable of creating that common ground.
There’s another part of my book where I talk about faith, which is usually the precursor to trust. When you have faith that other humans are capable of finding common ground with you, over time that faith turns into trust.
GS The concept is that you automatically extend that faith to people, so you’re coming to the conversation with good expectations about that other person.
MK Yes. And I think it’s better to have the expectation that someone is capable of conducting civil discourse, rather than the assumption that they’re not, which I do think happens a lot now. The truth is that we can find common ground with people who are different from us or have different values.
“I think that on the majority of issues, there’s a lot of commonality in the human experience.”
GS On a global level, what are some applications for this kind of skill?
MK Here’s an example: There are protests happening in Iran and among the Iranian diaspora—all of the individuals who have left the country. You would think they would all band together to support people in that country who are protesting an abusive government. And they’re not, because people are concerned with their own egos with questions like What happens if this government falls? And what title do I get? And how do I get to be a part of the future of the country and decision-making? Of course, it’s nuanced. But being solution-oriented and working together is so important.
So that’s one example from my life at the political level. But whether it’s with a spouse or a family member, if you’re fighting over things and trying to prove to them that they’re wrong, they’re constantly going to feel inadequate, or lesser. You don’t want that. It makes for a bad relationship, which ultimately hurts you. That’s another reason why I think civil discourse is so important.
Within the book I tell stories about my personal life as well as things that are on a grander level, because I want people to see that part of the solution is letting go of your own ego, being willing to be vulnerable. All of these steps help you connect with other people. And that’s what civil discourse is all about—connecting with other people to create solutions.
GS How do you put these tools into practice?
MK I feel like active listening is a buzzword now, but it’s about actually hearing what someone else is saying so we can be present and respond correctly. The opposite of that is just listening for bits and pieces to construct our argument and have our voice heard. I think people do a better job of active listening if they’re not running a monologue in their head, questioning everything. For some people there’s this dynamic of just needing to hear yourself talk. It really creates a barrier in your ability to connect with people. So active listening is quite impactful to having productive civil discourse.
Then there’s being attentive—seeing how another person reacts and responding accordingly. We miss that in most digital communication, because it’s devoid of nuance. You can’t see emotion as much unless people are throwing emojis or using other ways to signal how they’re feeling. It’s usually a bit easier to be attentive—to understand how someone’s feeling and to respond correctly—when it’s in person.
GS It helps when you can see when somebody’s eyes are glazing over, or those little cues that tell us they may want to hear more.
MK Definitely. We’re constantly getting distracted. One of the key points for effective communication is maintaining focus—remembering what it is you’re trying to say and what the other person is saying. And in part, even that goes back to intentionality: What are we even talking about here?
GS Sometimes we may feel it helps us focus better to write to someone rather than talk. It can be easy to be dragged away from the heart of the issue in some conversations.
MK Yes. There’s a nuance there, though. There’s a beauty to writing and being thoughtful and putting that time in, and feeling like you’re heard. But it can turn into a very competitive situation, where the person responds by ripping apart every single line in the letter, which happens less in conversation, I think. There’s a lot of value in writing, but the choice between whether you’re sending this as a text, writing a longer-form email, or doing it in person says a lot about the type of interaction you’re going to end up having.
“It’s important that we talk about civil discourse in school at a young age, because we have so many new ways of communicating now, and picking the right one for the right moment is a social skill.”
GS Global discussion often happens through writing, doesn’t it. And you need to leave room for a dialogue in writing somehow, which can be very difficult. How do you have these important global conversations if your only recourse is writing?
MK Fantastic question. I look at the history of how communication has evolved. News used to be a certain way. Large news companies would publish something in the paper, or eventually it was channel television. But you would have conversations with people face-to-face afterward and talk about your perspective. If you wanted to get your voice out there, you might write an article or protest an issue.
Today the conversation is instantaneous, and often with people you don’t know, in comment sections. We can immediately respond. So, two things are happening there. One is that it usually results in very reactionary responses, because we haven’t had time to step away from it and reflect. And the other is that there’s an immense lack of nuance in a comment section; we usually don’t know the other person that we’re deciding to tear apart. Or we’re throwing something out there without caring what effect it’s going to have on people who read it, because we just scrolled away afterward. That’s a big change in how we engage with new information that’s constantly coming our way.
GS And it’s a huge challenge—which takes us to the next part of your book, about overcoming challenges.
MK Yes. Expecting conflict is a good one to dive into. You have to expect that everyone’s going to have different experiences than you do. At a surface level, we usually know it’s okay for people to have different perspectives. That’s why we protect certain rights: people’s speech, or their ability to practice their own religion (whatever it is). But in practice, we often end up not actually feeling that way. We can end up thinking this person has a perspective that’s detrimental to society. Maybe I don’t want them to be spewing this information out there. We talk a lot about de-platforming people on social media. And if celebrities have a perspective, people often say, “Well, you’re just a celebrity; I don’t want you to have a perspective.”
As a culture, we’ve started to push back a little bit on these things. A lot of that is a lack of appreciation for our differences. To maintain that appreciation, we have to be curious, to approach every person with a question of “Why?” when you don’t understand or agree. Probing like a child who asks, “Why is the sky blue? Why is this the way it is?” and so on, over and over again, will inevitably help you understand that person a little bit better. And the perspective they provide you, I believe, will allow you to have more empathy for them; so you can say, “They’re different from me, but that’s okay, because they had this whole list of circumstances that happened to them before I ever met them, and that’s shaped who they are today. Over time, maybe their perspective changes to be with mine, or maybe we find some other way of finding common ground.”
GS Even understanding that these differences of opinion are going to happen, sometimes a fear of having to give up a long-held view might get in the way of being open to new ones. Or we’re afraid we can’t find common ground because we think so differently. What’s the antidote to these kinds of fears?
MK Rooted in that fear is “I don’t think that conversation is going to go well.” We’re making all sorts of assumptions about who they are, what they’re capable of. That’s part of the challenge of civil discourse. You’re going to be met with people who aren’t skilled at conducting civil discourse. You’re speaking to someone really calmly, and all of a sudden they use ad hominem attacks while you’re trying to keep the conversation focused.
Part of what I advocate for is micro conversations. Going through your life, not with headphones on constantly, or turning on the “Don’t talk to me” signal in the Uber app, but allowing micro conversations, where you talk to people you might never run into again. It inspires hope when you start to see that people are people.
There’s a great epidemic now of loneliness. I think it creates greater division when people are isolated and lonely and absorbing information in a very curated way on social media. You forget there are normal people out there who are just like you.
“Micro conversations remind people that it’s not impossible to connect. You can find common ground on many topics with the majority of people.”
But exemplifying what greatness looks like when you are met with those people who are incapable of having productive conversations, and knowing yourself enough to say, “I can’t change everyone; maybe I have to walk away”—I think that’s okay.
In general, though, questions are really powerful for disarming people when they start to attack you. You can be very direct and transparent and say something like, “Why do you feel you need to attack me to get your point across?” When people see you’re being sincere and trying to have a productive conversation, and they’re tearing it apart, they get caught off guard and either have to reevaluate their response or continue, and you might have to leave it for another day.
GS That’s an interesting point. Some people might think that civility means you can’t be uncomfortably direct, or you can’t contradict someone.
MK It’s not that at all; you’re not here to be passive or a pushover. The goal is common ground, and that often can mean pushing your own point and making it heard. But effective communication is still important. It’s not niceness, it’s effectiveness. It’s not just about being kind all the time or holding yourself back from being reactive. All of that is just a means to effective communication. I call civil discourse an art, not a science, because it’s not the same every time you talk to someone. There is an art to human connection.
GS Is there a clock ticking on society’s need for improving civility in our discourse? If we don’t change by x time, we’re going to find ourselves in big trouble?
MK Yes. Part of my frustration about the lack of civil discourse started when I studied environmental science in college. If not everyone agrees that the planet is capable of dying or that we’re not capable of changing the climate—if we can’t all agree that climate change is real and that we want to create a solution for it—why can’t we at least agree that we all like animals, we like forests, we like clean air. These are all common things that we agree are good. Why can’t we focus on those elements to create some solutions. That was the first step to thinking “How frustrating that we just can’t communicate more effectively and get this done.”
There are so many interests in the way. Beyond the environmental issue, the same communication problem applies to everything. I think now is the time to prioritize communicating effectively. The hope is that talking about civil discourse will help us become more aware that it’s a value we have to cultivate, because effective communication makes everything easier.