Hélène Biandudi Hofer’s hands were white-knuckle tight on the steering wheel as she drove back to the automotive shop where she intended to berate the crew. She’d just spent a bundle to have the windows tinted and other detail work done. Then she found a scratch that started the furious cascade she was experiencing.
They rushed, she fumed. They were careless and they cheated me.
A day had passed and her anger had only increased.
Then a thought popped into her head, completely unbidden, as she drove: “Imagine if you’re wrong.”
She tried to shove it down, but years later she remembers that moment vividly because it forced her to pause briefly, to take a breath. And as it turned out, she was wrong. Biandudi Hofer has been rethinking her approach to conflict ever since.
These days, Biandudi Hofer, 42, is an award-winning journalist best known for her work melding principles of storytelling, conflict mediation and solutions journalism to foster better conversations and problem-solving around societal challenges. Her work fits snugly under what’s been called a “good conflict” umbrella. She also founded a media group, HBH Enterprises, that “explores social issues with a focus on solutions and opportunities.” In short, she thinks we could all be arguing better — and a whole lot more constructively.
Biandudi Hofer is no stranger to conflict and its impact, either personally or professionally. She grew up in a biracial household in Columbus, Ohio. Her dad was a Black man from the Democratic Republic of Congo, her mom a white woman from South Dakota. She describes them as bold, courageous, no-nonsense educators who never backed down from confrontation, but says they saw discord through the lens of growth and opportunity and passed that on to their two children. She was taught to have pride in who she was even in difficult times and to never ignore things, but to pick and choose what she wants to address with people.
She also was taught she could do anything; her dad, who died in 2010, really hoped she’d be the first Black president, leading her to joke that honor has passed. Instead, she graduated from New York University’s broadcast journalism program in 2003 and launched a storyteller’s journalism career that has changed dramatically over the years, moving away from telling what happened to explaining why, the focus on problem-solving and bridge building.
Deseret asked her how to argue more constructively and solve problems better.
Deseret Magazine: You talk about the “the right fight.” What do you mean by that?
Hélène Biandudi Hofer: The right fight is having a good, healthy argument that actually goes somewhere and doesn’t end in divorce, outrage, broken friendships — you know, families that no longer talk and cousins that you avoid at family reunions.
DM: Sounds great, but how?
HBH: Practice getting and staying curious about those with whom you disagree. In the narratives we tell ourselves and others about a conflict we’re involved in, we’re always the hero. The other person is the problem, the perpetrator, the nut job causing all the chaos and disorder. If we can slow down, get a little distance, a little breathing room to step back and reflect on the issue, our role in it and recognize that the person we’re fighting with most likely sees themselves as the hero in their story, too, a shift can start to happen.
We slowly move from demonizing to humanizing — and curiosity plays a role in helping us get there, along with a dose of humility and humor.
DM: Are there strategies to boost one’s curiosity?
HBH: Start with a low-stakes situation. Go to a new restaurant and order something you’ve heard of but haven’t tried. Visit a neighborhood you’ve never been to and take a stroll. Ask people what they most enjoy about living there or how they think others misunderstand their neighborhood. Watch a documentary or movie about people whose lives appear to be drastically different from yours and look for commonalities. Maybe you and the protagonist both prioritize faith and family above everything. These may seem like silly ideas, but curiosity is not second nature when we’re in high conflict. If we regularly and genuinely exercise curiosity like a muscle, with time it will get stronger. And maybe, just maybe, we can start having healthier fights that leave us understanding more about ourselves, others and the issues that divide us.
DM: Where does one begin?
HBH: It takes time and practice. It takes not doing it right many, many times and recognizing that and thinking, “How could this have gone differently?” You have to do the audit, play the tape back over past conversations, past debates we’ve had with people: Where did this go wrong and where was the opportunity for it to go a different direction? It doesn’t just happen.
DM: Are you so used to it that it’s automatic?
HBH: It’s not that it works consistently. But there has to be the will to see the person as human first, rather than demonizing them or seeing them as “the other.” There’s a few questions that I think come from the book “Crucial Conversations.” Why would a rational, well-meaning person respond in this way? Or do this? Or say this? You have got to ask that first. But it takes practice.
DM: How do you prepare for difficult conversations or meetings?
HBH: You can ask yourself, how do I want to show up in this gathering? How do I want to interact with this person? Then you can think through and play through how this could go. You know, what are some of the questions that I could ask? How can I put that person first? People are relatively selfish. We think about ourselves first — our wants and our needs. That’s who we are as humans. It’s difficult because sometimes if our wants and our needs are not being met, it’s hard to have a healthy argument, especially if this other person is in some way influencing the needs that we have. But we can slow down and think about how we want to show up and how we can get the best out of a situation without seeing the other person as less than human. That’s a starting point. But it’s not something that everyone will want to do.
DM: Do you apply that to political discord?
HBH: I had a former neighbor visit and it was difficult for him to hear me explaining things like how to approach people he politically disagrees with. He didn’t see how it was possible. He asked, How do I do that to someone who’s operating from a different set of facts and they’re lying? And they want to harm people like me? Well, I understand that. But I guess my question is, What’s the alternative? If you want to live your life seeing half of this country as your enemy, that sounds like a pretty hopeless life.
DM: Do you think as a country our demeanor is getting better or worse?
HBH: The answer depends on the day. There are some days when I’m shocked because I’m hearing about how a newsroom brought people together around an intractable conflict and got people to talk and be open and — my gosh — listen to the stories and the personal experiences of others. That’s the day when I just feel so much hope. And then there are days when I turn on the news and I see something or hear something and I wonder how many steps we’ve taken backwards.
I don’t believe, though, that we’re as polarized as people think. We’re so much more open about how we’re talking about disagreement and division and conflict in ways that we didn’t always do in the past. And I think people aren’t afraid to say that I disagree or that’s wrong or I feel a different way about this. I think it can be used in unhealthy ways, of course, whether we’re talking about social media, the news, whatever it might be. But I don’t believe that things are worse off. We have to be careful about finding scapegoats. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost a sense of ownership in terms of our role in creating a healthy democracy and we point fingers at things as opposed to doing the internal work of thinking, OK, where do I stand in all of this and how do I show up?
DM: What is your last word on this?
HBH: Ask questions, listen and stay curious about others.
Step back, reflect and recognize that the person we’re fighting with most likely sees themselves as the hero in their story, too.