There are few things as frustrating as trying to communicate with someone who seems to live in an entirely different reality than you do. As someone who spends the majority of their day living, working, and communicating through social media, there have been many times where I felt that trying to find common ground with other people was probably a hopeless endeavor. While Seeking an Understanding: How to Have Difficult Conversations Without Destroying Your Relationship by Seth Pierce didn’t solve that angst for me entirely, it’s a book that I wish everyone would take the time to read.
At its core, Seeking an Understanding is a book that attempts to establish a baseline of communication in 2021 and beyond. It identifies the invisible barriers that divide us along lines of race, sexual orientation, gender, political parties, religion, and culture, and takes the time to explore healthy ways to navigate them. This book may not be accessible to those who want to further entrench themselves in their own opinions — Pierce pulls few punches, writing specifically for those who genuinely want to grow in their ability to understand others.
Probably the most important aspect of this book for me was its posture — its ability to fully recognize the existence of privilege and societal power dynamics throughout each chapter. In every discussion, power dynamics are treated as fact, a critical component to understanding how to communicate better. This is a quality that’s desperately lacking from the majority of straight white male Christian authors I’ve read, and the difference was evident from the first few pages.
Seeking an Understanding reads much like a field guide. It covers a massive amount of territory, tackling subjects like political correctness, colonization, conspiracy theories and fake news, cultural barriers to communication, power dynamics, and systems of oppression, often using hypothetical, easily understood scenarios based on the Adventist Christian experience as a starting point before turning the lens to understand our broader society. I found myself taking long breaks between each chapter. Although the chapters were relatively short, I felt each one deserved careful thought and attention. I would venture to guess that many readers will find this book more fulfilling if they take this approach. Thankfully, Pierce planned for this. Every chapter ends with a series of personal, intentional reflection questions that, if answered honestly, can be pretty challenging.
The bias I myself bring to this review may be helpful to share, because I truly believe that Seeking an Understanding is sorely needed by people who grew up like me. At its best, I think this book can serve as a launching point for people to explore each individual topic more deeply as they consider how to apply them to their own communication and relationships — a crucial point of consideration not just for those working in communication positions, but for everyone who wants to better understand how to build bridges with the people around them.
The end goal of this book, from my perspective, is one of building healthy community. Its principles can be applied individually as someone asks, “How can I better connect with people who do not come from my background or generation?” That’s a great place to start. But they aren’t limited to that. Applied holistically, I believe these principles can transform how we interact with the larger world online and in person. They give a framework for understanding growing societal trends such as “cancel culture” and “identity politics,” and a whole host of other often-demonized ideological tendencies.
The primary challenge I see with this book has less to do with its content and more to do with its accessibility. I was left asking, “How can I get the people in my life to read this? Will they be willing to read the entire thing, to reflect on the questions it offers, and will they be honest enough with themselves to take a second look at how they can use the principles it suggests to start healing their relationships?” Although I found myself nodding along with Pierce’s words often, I wondered how I would interpret the same words I was reading if I had been conditioned to see them as threatening? Would I be willing to entertain the points he was making? I’m not sure.
One particularly helpful section of Pierce’s book, especially for those encountering some of the principles he includes for the first time, or for those coming to this book from a different angle or experience, is the short glossary he has included at the end. Defining terms like “white privilege” and “gaslighting” helps establish a common understanding for these ideas as the reader moves through the book, definitions that may not exactly match the way those phrases have been used in the reader’s own experiences.
Although many of the subjects covered in Seeking an Understanding have been points of tension and debate in my circles for some time, Pierce introduced several insightful new lenses for me to dwell on before the end of the book. Among the most impactful was Chapter 8, entitled “Context and Cultures.” While I was already familiar in theory with the idea of context itself, a section of the chapter focused on the differences between “high context cultures,” where much of the meaning is embedded and indirect in its communication, and “low context cultures,” where meaning is more direct and explicitly stated. Pierce shares an example of two of those differing cultures in communication with each other, pointing out some of the potential shortfalls if neither is willing to understand and navigate the other. The idea of high context communication was especially meaningful to me in relation to online communication — my primary place of work and social interaction. Even apart from our national contexts, online communication is packed with both high context (memes, pop culture references, shortened text, and abbreviations) and low context interactions, and applying this knowledge to navigating that environment struck me as incredibly valuable.
Although I was sent a copy of this book for review, I found it meaningful enough to consider buying it for several other people in my life, and it is now proudly displayed on my bookshelf. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of intercultural and intergenerational communication and needs a place to begin.
Seeking an Understanding: How to Have Difficult Conversations Without Destroying Your Relationship is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback, and directly from the publisher, AdventSource.
Kaleb Eisele is a content developer and independent journalist based in Portland, Oregon, and the creator of the online storytelling platform Humans of Adventism.
Book cover image courtesy of AdventSource.
“Stop Talking Past Each Other: New Book Promotes Better Conversation” — Interview with Seth Pierce by Alita Byrd for Spectrum
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