Turn Confrontations into Conversations with Sharon McMahon · ep. 36 · 10 for Teens + Tweens

Sharon McMahon headshot

In this special extended episode, I talk with Sharon McMahon @sharonsaysso about how girls can turn confrontations into conversations.

In our interview, Sharon discusses:

  • How to approach conflict by asking questions with curiosity
  • Why tone matters and in-person conversations are preferred
  • Whether the fight is worth having
  • The importance of listening to understand
  • “You cannot lose what you do not play”
  • The benefits of having friends with different beliefs
  • What boundaries really mean

I am thrilled to have our special guest here! On Instagram and her podcast she shares both information and inspiration. Her favorite animals are eagles and whales. Please welcome Sharon McMahon!

SHARON: Hello! Thank you for inviting me.

Get to know Sharon McMahon

Thank you for being on the podcast. I imagine a lot of our listeners’ parents know you on Instagram at @SharonSaysSo. So to help our girls get to know you, could you please share a bit more about who you are and what you do?

SHARON: Well, I’ve been a high school teacher for a very long time and now I teach people on Instagram. Anybody who will wants to learn is welcome in my community on Instagram @SharonSaysSo and I also have a podcast, as you mentioned, by the same name. What I try to do is share nonpartisan fact-based information about things like government and current events. My goal is really to just share facts so that you can be educated and make up your own mind about things.

Confrontations —> Conversations

I love that. I know you’ve been coined “America’s government teacher,” and one of my favorite things you do (besides sketching wildlife!) is when you help your followers, mostly adults who have very different beliefs not just listen to, but understand each other even though they don’t agree. I love when you do that. You mentioned that you taught high school and you are a mom to teens and a tween daughter. So I imagine that you’ve helped referee disagreements with them like girl/boy drama, foursquare rules — you know, the usual (foursquare is really intense). But over the past few years, teens and tweens have witnessed and experienced a lot of tension over politics, race, rights, the pandemic, etc. And so whether over current events or typical friendship fires, arguing and fighting can’t be the only options for managing conflicts. So I want to discuss with you, as girls encounter different beliefs and strong opinions, how they can turn confrontations into conversations.

SHARON: Truly, it’s it’s an unprecedented time. I have so much respect for what today’s students are doing, how they’ve risen to the occasion, and their desire to have a positive impact on the world. I have so much respect for it in a lot of ways. I feel like today’s teens and tweens are, frankly, doing better than a lot of adults: thinking more rationally, treating each other better. I’m not even kidding. I feel like a lot of eighth graders are doing a better job than a lot of 40 year olds. Legitimately. I feel like a lot of teenagers today really do have a have a good handle or a better handle than a lot of adults do on these kinds of topics. But that’s not to say that you won’t encounter a time in your life where you strongly disagree with somebody, or you’re having a conflict with somebody over something. It could be something like politics, could be something like mask mandates, could be over a friendship. There’s a big variety of things you might have conflict with somebody over, and that’s an important thing to learn how to deal with because most adults haven’t learned how to deal with it — and that is how we are where we are! So, if we can learn how to deal with it in like fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth eleventh grade, then the future is looking so much brighter than it is today. I fully believe that Gen Alpha and Gen Z are going to be huge changemakers in the world in positive ways. I 100% believe that. 

Curious Questions

So let’s say you find yourself in a really, really sticky situation. Let’s say you have a friend whose parents have perhaps voted very, very differently than your parents did. And you feel a lot of tension because you have strong feelings about a politician. And this is something that people are getting into conflicts at school. I’ve heard plenty of conflicts at school where somebody’s wearing a shirt with a certain politician on it and other people make fun of them for that. This is a legitimate thing that people have discussions over. So one of the things that I think is super useful is instead of asking somebody, “Why would you wear that?” or “Why would you believe that?” or “Why would you vote for somebody?”, that question “Why?” feels really attacking. I’m immediately like, “Why are you stupid?” — that’s that’s what you’re hearing. When somebody says, “Why are you wearing that?” what you hear is, “Why are you dumb? Why are you stupid?” So instead of phrasing a question like, “Why are you doing that?” try asking somebody a question that has curiosity underneath it instead of a question that has, an accusation or an attack underneath it. So if you were to ask somebody, “I’d love to hear more about where you got that shirt from,” or “I’d love to hear more about what that shirt means to you.”

Tone Matters

And ask it in a friendly way, because of course we all know it’s not just what you say, a lot of it is how you say it. If you if you have a teacher that comes into the room, and is like “Okay … let’s all sit down. Let’s get started.” that feels super different than a teacher who comes into the room and is like, “Okay, SIT DOWN!” Right. I mean, they’re two completely different things even though they use the same words. So always watch your tone. If your goal is to have a conversation instead of just a conflict, your tone is everything. And try asking a curiosity question instead of an attack question.

In-Person

And I like that you’re saying this should be done in person – don’t do it over text. There is no tone, no matter what emojis you throw in there, there’s all sorts of misunderstandings that naturally will be assumed and will make this blow up even worse. So I think that in person conversations are really important.

SHARON: Right? Like does the crying emoji does that mean crying laughing or does that mean I’m so sad, tears running down my eyes. Those things mean different things to different people when they’re interpreted differently and it’s way more easy to misinterpret when all you see are written words and a crying emoji.

I’ve actually Googled emojis, what is this supposed to mean?

SHARON: And they mean different things to different generations of people. People who are currently adults, most often interpret the crying emoji you like where it’s like tears running down both sides of their faces, they interpret that as like, “Oh my gosh, it’s so horrible. It’s so sad.” And people who are not currently adults often interpret that to mean I’m crying laughing. I would choose the laughing one with tears going out the sides of the face. So just keep that in mind that there’s a larger margin of error when you’re communicating with just emojis and text.

When you don’t have actual faces, actual expressions, that learning to read cues. Social and emotional skills were hindered because of the pandemic, because of the lack of in-person interaction, and then also masks. So it’s important to have in-person conversations because we need to develop that again and stronger.

Is this fight worth having?

Okay, what if a girl is confronted by someone who’s already fired up and defensive? What advice do you have for that situation?

SHARON: I think it’s important to determine in that moment, is this a fight that is worth having? Not every fight is worth having. You actually are not obligated to show up to every fight you’re invited to. And perhaps a fight might be worth having with your sibling or your parents, where you already know and love and trust each other and you know that at the end of the fight, maybe you’d come to some resolution. Maybe it is, only you can answer that for yourself. But if it’s a stranger, chances are good that it’s not going to result in anything meaningful at the end of that. You’re just gonna be mad, and what you say is going to be used against you, and you’re going to regret having said something. So I always like to try to determine like, is this a fight even worth having? And a lot of times the answer is NO. By the way, almost any fight that happens online is not worth having. Almost any fight that happens on Snap or Insta or any social media platform, almost always that is not worth having. If it’s worth fighting about, it’s worth talking about in person. Because so much can be screenshotted and forwarded and taken out of context and purposely misunderstood, where people claim that they misunderstood but they really didn’t but they want to make it seem like they did. The potential for things to go wrong is so big when you’re fighting somebody online.

So let’s say you have a good friend, and you really hurt their feelings mistakenly, and they come to you and are like, “I can’t believe you did that to me. We’re not friends anymore!” Like they would have a big fight with you about something that happened between you, and you decide like this friendship is very important to you, this friendship is worth saving. That might be a discussion that is worth having. And in that scenario, again, watching your tone is always really important, and telling the other person you’re really important to me and so I want to hear I want to hear what you have to say.

Listen to Understand

And then actually listening intently while they tell you what they have to say. Waiting your turn for them to finish saying what it is that they have to say before responding is also important. And I also like to keep in mind that it’s important to listen to them to actually understand what they’re saying, instead of listening to them for a chance to respond. So often we’re like, “Oh, wait! That’s not true! That didn’t happen!” You’re just waiting for a chance to respond, but at the end of that conversation, that person doesn’t feel heard. It’s worse because now you’ve just like you just added a bunch of wood on the fire, you’ve made the flames even bigger. So if the goal is listening to understand where they’re coming from, that feels very different to the other person than just listening to respond with your own points, 

I really appreciate you explaining that distinction. It’s not about reacting. It’s not about like getting your, your two cents in if you actually really want to resolve it. You’ve got to listen and help people feel heard. So that you can respond to that and the end and I think it’s given take, you know, and then they too need to listen to respond to how you’re feeling.

SHARON: If you want somebody to give you respect, you first have to respect them. That is huge. That is human nature. And when somebody is not respecting you even if you have gone out of your way to respect them, then that says a lot about them, says a lot about them that they about their true intentions. But if you really want to resolve a conflict, screaming is never going to result in, “I feel better. Oh my gosh, thank you. I’m so glad we had this out. Good talk. Good talk.” Like that’s never the response after you guys have just spent time screaming at each other. Sometimes it means taking a break from coming back.

And by the way, sometimes people need to learn how to extricate themselves from a situation where they don’t want to have an argument. Where they’re like, this is not an argument that I that I think is worth having. And sometimes just allowing somebody to think something, even if it’s wrong, is the best way to get out of something by just saying like, “It’s okay if you think that,” and just leaving the situation. What they’re looking for is for you to respond they want you to have this like big like, “How could you? How dare you? I hate you! What’s wrong with you?” Like they want you to have that kind of response. And when you don’t give them that satisfaction, it takes the wind out of their sails. It really does. In fact, sometimes that’s even better revenge than fighting – refusing to fight.

No, I think that’s a good point. You talked about this with Adam Grant, he’s an author and psychologist, that you shouldn’t agree to disagree, but I think, in that case, there are scenarios when girls should just leave it. You don’t have to engage. Picking your battles is something if you can develop it now girls…

SHARON: Yes! Develop it now! Let other people be wrong about you and about things in the world. It’s actually not your job to fix all of the all of the wrongness in the world. There’s a famous phrase like, “It’s not your job to be the idiot whisperer.” You know what I mean, like it is actually not your job to fix every misconception that has ever happened. It’s actually pretty hard to do that, I’m not going to pretend that it’s really easy to just walk away and be like, “Go ahead and think that,” but it gets easier the more you do it. And usually you’re glad you did.

“You cannot lose what you do not play”

No, that’s true. And I know sometimes girls mentally keep score, like winning an argument increases their status. But like you’re saying, should the goal be to convince others to agree with them every time? It doesn’t sound like it.

SHARON: You cannot lose what you do not play. I can’t lose a hockey game today because I’m not playing a hockey game today. Right? I cannot lose a game I am not playing. And so refusing to play the game, refusing to get into the arguments means you cannot lose the argument. So you’re not a loser if you refuse to play cannot lose what you are not playing.

I’m gonna be thinking about this tonight when I go to bed. My mind is like “Whoaaa!” and had I known this 25 years ago, I would have avoided a lot of unnecessary conflict and frustration so I really appreciate you sharing that.

Friends with different beliefs

I know that girls often make friends with those they share a lot in common with, but do you think it’s important for girls to also have friends with different opinions or beliefs?

SHARON: I really do. I think that’s an important thing for our own intellectual development. It makes us smarter, it makes us kinder, and makes us more compassionate. And those are all qualities that the entire world needs more of. As we were just saying a few minutes ago, today’s teenagers are going to be the superheroes with the capes. And these are the skills that, if we can learn them now, if we can learn more kindness, more understanding, more intelligence now, that just gives us even more years to develop those skills so they’ll be even more incredible when the time comes to just get out there and flex them in the real world. So I do think it’s important. I have learned so much from being friends with people who maybe have a different take on politics or a different take on religion or a different take on what kind of cultural experiences they’re having in America. We’re better for being exposed to those things. I understand that not everybody lives in a place where they have the opportunity to have a lot of variety and diversity in their friends, not everybody has that opportunity, butI would really encourage it if you do to reach out to people who aren’t different than you. It makes you better and it makes them better.

What Boundaries really mean

And the world better. Thank you for sharing that. So before we wrap up, this could be any topic. What is the most important thing you want girls listening to know?

SHARON: Well, it is really difficult to distill it down to one thing. I’ll give you one example, one thing that I think that a lot of adult women have not learned, and that if we could have learned it a long time ago, it would be super helpful. And that’s about the topic of boundaries. So often we think of boundaries as telling somebody else what they can do. Like, “You can’t come into my room. I have a boundary.” We think about them in terms of telling other people what to do. But a boundary is really telling somebody else what you will do if they violate your boundary. And once we learn that distinction, that is not about bossing other people around necessarily, it’s about deciding for yourself what you are going to do if something violates a boundary. A boundary can be anything like the types of conversations you’re willing to have with friends, or what kind of behavior you might expect from a significant other. Setting your boundaries is an important thing to do, not just for your mental health, but for your physical health. The world at large needs to just get better boundaries and understanding how boundaries work and why they’re important. I think it is a skill that a lot of adults don’t have. So a boundary is not telling other people what to do, it’s telling them what you will do if they violate your boundary.

Yeah, it’s not about controlling other people. It’s maintaining autonomy of yourself.

SHARON: That’s right. I cannot participate in conversations in which people are using racist language. And so the boundary is I don’t participate in those kinds of conversations. It is telling other people what you will do. If that occurs, you don’t participate, you get up and walk out, you alert a teacher, you tell another trusted adult. That’s what you are going to do. You can’t control another person. You can’t stop them from doing what it is that they’re going to do, unfortunately. You just can control yourself. So it’s telling other people what you will do

Awesome. Boundaries. We all could use them, they’re so important. Oh, Sharon. Honestly, it has been an absolute pleasure to have you on the podcast. Before we go if you would please help our girls know where they can connect with you, hear more from you, where can they find you?

SHARON: Well, I hang out on Instagram Stories a ton and my profile is @SharonSaysSo. And I also have a podcast that has three new episodes every week. You can just listen on whatever podcast platform you’re listening to this one on right now.

Wonderful. Oh, thank you so much, Sharon. I really appreciate it. This has been beneficial for both the girls and myself.

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