Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Civility’ Category

The Weirdest Common Ground Ever

Many people are bemoaning America’s vicious public square. Few are discussing the weird common ground that most of us share—and what might be the best way to address it.

Two recent conversations brought this into focus for me. The first—with a conservative Christian friend who reluctantly supported Donald Trump—fulfilled a longing I’ve had since the 2016 election: to talk with people like her and understand their thinking. Over the past two years, I’ve asked my Trump-supporting friends for a conversation, but almost none of them would engage with me.

I thought I knew why, and my friend confirmed it: they’re scared to death. They’ve been disparaged and harassed and even attacked by some people on the left, or they’ve heard reports of such abuse, and they don’t want to get hurt.

If you’ve listened to progressives, you know they’re scared to death too. Their fear (from what I’ve heard) seems to focus more on the damage Mr. Trump might wreak on our rights, our system of government, and our world. I’m sure some of them also fear being attacked by members of the right.

It’s not a big stretch to say, in the colorful language of my father, that we’re all scared shitless. Fear is a weird common ground, but common ground it is.

Yes, we can argue that one group or another has a lot more to be scared about, or has endured more decades of disparagement and harassment. In many cases, those claims deserve careful reflection and appropriate action. But what if we also focused—in a separate context, or just for a while—on our common terror? What if we admitted that the person on the other side who makes our blood boil is likely as fearful as we are?

Have you ever noticed what happens to your heart when a child tells you she’s scared? Mine melts. I want to hold her and let her know she’s safe. My love for her overflows. Could the same happen when an adversary says she’s scared?

That leads me to the second conversation, which contains a weird idea for addressing this fear. I’ll post about it next week.

Where Convictions and Friendship Collide

You’re talking with an old friend over coffee. At one point in the conversation, she uses a word that sets off every alarm bell in your head. Clearly she believes something you don’t believe at all. What do you do?

Bill and I have been discussing God for decades. He is a Calvinist, a deep and brilliant thinker, and takes the Bible literally (more or less). We see most things very differently from each other. I love him like a brother, but even more like a role model, because I have watched God’s grace flood his life for many years.

The other day we got to talking about the existence of truth, and as part of that conversation he brought up the idea of certainty. Is it possible to be certain about things in this life—certain about God, about what you read in sacred texts, about anything?

Now I do not like certainty. Not one little bit. Back in my teens and early twenties, I was certain about my beliefs; it wreaked havoc on my emotional life and separated me from people I love. I’ve seen this happen to others as well. From my perspective, less certainty—and more willingness to say, “I don’t know”—would make the world a better place.

So when Bill brought up the word, I had lots of good reasons to laser in on it and proclaim the dangers of certainty.

I didn’t do it.

Here’s why. Bill and I are getting on in years. Our worldviews are well established, and they’ve borne much fruit in our lives. If I start spouting about certainty, I’m doing so from my worldview. That likely won’t be any use to him.

On the other hand, I had no idea what he meant by certainty. So I asked him.

His answer surprised me. He spoke of that inner peace when life seems so good and everything just feels right. Paradoxically, what he meant by certainty was subjective.

Yes, here too I could have gone off on him: certainty can’t be subjective! It’s a logical contradiction! Instead, I took in his meaning and turned it over in my mind, grateful for having learned a little more about the issue at hand, and a little more about what makes Bill tick.

You might say I gave up on truth, or at least intellectual rigor, for relationship. You may be right. That’s what fascinates me. At this point in our friendship, this stage of our lives, this cycle of the universe, it seemed more fruitful to deepen a friendship (and to address the whole conversation) than to rant about a truth or, rather, a truth as I saw it.

What do you think of this choice? Would you have made the same decision? Why or why not? Are there other situations where you’d have chosen the other way? (There are for me.) Feel free to share here or on Facebook.

Looking for Common Ground on the Gun Debate

When it comes to guns, what can we all agree on?

You may think this a fool’s question, especially if you’ve spent any time with the media (print, broadcast, social, or otherwise) in the past 48 hours. We have relived, yet again, a pattern that is not only tragic but disheartening. A horrific shooting takes place. Law enforcement tries to parse out exactly what happened. In the meantime, partisans on both ends of the gun debate begin to broadcast—loudly, in take-no-prisoners language—their well-worn arguments.

Many of us stay off Facebook for a few days.

Back in 2012, after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, we ran a little experiment about the gun issue in this space as well as on Facebook. I asked people to respond to some honest, open questions in order to explore and express their own beliefs about guns. (If you weren’t part of the original conversation, take a look at the questions and see how you’d answer them.)

The stories we shared and heard were remarkable. One person wrote about the relatives she has lost to gun violence. Another spoke in almost spiritual terms about the joy of hunting.

Oddly, we came close to agreement on a couple of things. Background checks were good. Waiting periods were good. Best of all, we left the clichés behind and actually started to talk with one another.

Today, in the wake of what happened in San Bernardino, I want to try another little experiment. Let’s see if we can lay out a few things on which we all agree. It’s not as foolish as it looks; it just means we have to go back to basics. Waaaay back. Can we, for instance, agree to the following:

  1. These shootings are horrible. Obvious? Of course. But stay with it awhile. Allow yourself to feel that sense of horror and sadness that comes with each news flash. Then, when you’ve done that, know this: the person on the other side of the gun debate feels it too.
  2. We should keep weapons away from people who plan to use them in mass shootings. This makes yesterday’s Senate votes nearly incomprehensible. Whatever the reason for those votes, however, is this statement as self-evident as I think it is?
  3. It can be difficult—sometimes impossible—to tell a future mass shooter from anyone else. Taken together, these folks do what they do from a dizzying array of motives. Workplace dissatisfaction. Mental illness. A deep sense of exclusion from society’s benefits. Terrorism. No one-size-fits-all solution will fit all.
  4. It takes time to figure out what happened. How often, after a tragedy like the shooting in San Bernardino, do we hear a police chief answer questions with “that is still under investigation”? It can take days, even weeks, to nail down the whats and whys. That makes jumping to conclusions—and, more important, acting on those conclusions—perilous.

What do you think? Can we agree on all these?

If we can, several good things can happen. Our common reactions to the horror can foster empathy: they remind us that our adversaries are, first and foremost, human. Common ground inspires hope that maybe we can work together to find more common ground—or at least places where we can compromise. If people in power take these steps, they might just find enough space to collaborate on solutions and take action.

And action to prevent another shooting is what we so desperately need. I’m betting we can all agree on that.


What I’ve Learned from the Race/Policing Conversation

Over the past week or two, I’ve had a number of vigorous and civil conversations about police behavior, the use of force, and race in America. Emerging from those conversations are several points that, I think, are underrepresented right now in the public square. So here is what I’ve heard and learned and come to believe:

  1. We need to listen more and listen better. As I wrote in another article, “By listen, I don’t mean waiting impatiently for the other person to stop so I can have my say. I don’t mean listening through the filter of every belief I’ve ever held. I mean listening that is deep, openhearted, and fully attentive, that strives to experience the other person as she is, to accurately hear what she says.”  Read more here.
  2. We need more both/and. Can we deplore the destruction of property in Ferguson and inquire into the dynamics that gave rise to the underlying anger? Can we express concern about police use of excessive force and note the difficult line that officers walk in carrying out their duties? Can we uphold the value of individual responsibility and acknowledge the broader social trends that make assuming responsibility an uphill climb? If not, why not?
  3. We need space to explore without shame. The dynamics behind the incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland, and other places are new to many people (mostly white people). To fully understand any concept new to us, we humans inevitably fumble around, ask clumsy questions, make rookie mistakes, so that eventually we get it and can be effective in addressing it. Exploration is difficult, however, if we fear being labeled immediately as bad or unacceptable just for asking questions. This happened after 9/11 with the label un-American; I hear it happening now with the label racism. Are some people who ask clumsy questions racist? You bet. Do some hold truly good intent despite their klutziness? Indeed they do.
  4. I wonder if, just maybe, we can restart the conversation in a different place. I have heard commentators address their white readers along these lines: “You are blind to the fact that racism is systemic—baked into our system. Just by being white, you benefit from it. That makes you part of the problem.” Wherever this statement is on the accuracy scale, it usually puts white readers on the defensive, which derails the conversation and leaves us even more polarized. What if we addressed white readers this way: “Did you know that racism is systemic—actually baked into our system? Here’s what I mean….” By separating the system from the individual initially, we might be able to spark not defensiveness but curiosity—and, from curiosity, engagement.
  5. There is a world of hurt around race, and it hurts on all sides. I spent part of yesterday listening to the experience of a friend—a teacher who felt threatened by the aggressive behavior of two students and mentioned it to management. In response, because she is white and the students are black, her entire work group was sent to a seminar on unconscious racism. The shaming she felt is palpable in her storytelling. No, I am not saying that white pain is equal to black pain: not even close. What I am saying is that an acknowledgment of pain from everyone, to everyone, might be a first step in the long, arduous process of opening our hearts to one another.

What do you think—not about the incidents themselves, but about the conversation they have sparked in the public square? What does it tell us about the way we do dialogue?

I Went to a Flame War the Other Day…

…and a civil dialogue broke out.

A few weekends ago I took part in an event related to my hobby. From what I could see, it was very well run, the venue was ideal, and everything went off smoothly. Many people praised the organizers on Facebook, where our colleagues tend to gather.

Then there was Joan (not her real name). In a hobby replete with colorful eccentrics, Joan is one of the most polarizing. Many perceive her as negative, hostile, and the source of much trouble. Others get on quite well with her.

During the event in question, she took issue with one of the requirements for participation. The last night of the event, she took her frustration to Facebook in a long post that derided the organizers for their policy and many other matters.

Things quickly got out of hand. The patter at the bar was angry and occasionally unprintable. Many charges and countercharges were exchanged. The flame war spread to several Facebook pages.

At some point, a light went on in my head. Personally, I thought highly of the requirement that sparked the uproar. But despite all her bluster, I could see that Joan and her allies had a point. Maybe there was a way to make the requirement optional for certain participants—not to appease, but because the situation demanded it. So I threw the idea out there.

Almost immediately, the tone of the conversation changed. Commenters started parsing out alternatives and considering the ramifications of each. Other ideas were raised. There was a decent exchange of views.

And—this is the cool part—the people engaging in this dialogue were the very people involved in the flame war. Joan included.

My usual caveat applies: it may have been my comment that changed the tone, but this is not about me. It’s about the fact that something rather miraculous happened. But what was it? And what can we learn? A few thoughts:

  • In an emotional firestorm, a quiet, thoughtful comment has way more power than you’d expect under other circumstances. It makes room for lurkers, who may be intimidated by the hostility, to speak up. By presenting a third way (in which, hopefully, both sides can see merit), it gives the flame participants a dignified way to stand down. And it simply creates a pause, during which passions may subside. It’s a variation of “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), unpacked.
  • For whatever reason, we (we Americans? we postmoderns? we humans? I’m not sure) quickly make most issues an either/or. The irony is that few issues actually are either/ors. There’s usually a both/and, or a third alternative, or a middle way. It saves us energy if, right from the get-go, we can look at an emerging either/or standoff and think, “What else might be a solution here? What would a both/and look like?”
  • We (this is definitely we humans) attach ourselves to so many things: our possessions, our relationships, our body image—and our convictions. There are times at which upholding and defending our convictions is of the utmost importance. But many things we attach to are, in the grand scheme of things, peripheral. Buddhism has long articulated the value of non-attachment, and I think it applies here. If we can approach our ideas and opinions with non-attachment, we can be more flexible in letting them go when the situation requires it.

What do you think? What lessons do you draw from this story? Feel free to share here.


A Miracle in Sonoma?

Sometimes, when we talk less, it’s amazing what we hear.

One highlight of my trip to San Francisco last month (to promote the book) was the chance to take part in “5 White Guys Talk about God,” a panel hosted by psychotherapist, author, and good friend Katy Byrne. (The title was strictly tongue-in-cheek.) When Katy heard I was coming west, she approached four of her clergy friends about holding a freewheeling “God conversation” in a local café. The six of us agreed that, in total, we’d talk for about 25% of the time, and let attendees take the other 75%.

Boy, was that a good call.

The comments from the audience came fast and from all over the map. One college-age church member discussed the active hostility to religion among people in her generation. Several ex-Catholics told us how badly the Church had treated them; several current Catholics traced their love of the faith to their childhoods. We heard from a man who has traveled the world to live with people in myriad faith traditions, and a woman who recently walked over coals for the first time. One fellow told us about the healings—and raisings of the dead—in his church.

It felt miraculous. Mostly, it inspired me to think about hunger—the emotional and existential kinds.

I sensed, for instance, a hunger for things of the spirit. Very few topics can draw 50 people to an indoor space on a luminous Sunday evening, as this one did. Moreover, the participants had clearly lived with and thought deeply about God, or at least the idea of God; I could hear the wisdom in even the most “ordinary” stories.

Take the Catholic who grew up in terror of missing Mass and committing mortal sin—until she realized her oh-so-devout mother never went to Mass. When asked, her mom replied, “Your father works very hard all week long, and he deserves a nice big family meal on Sundays. It’s my job to make that meal for all of you.” (Can we go so far as to call it her vocation?)

I also sensed a hunger for dialogue—and more capacity for doing dialogue than I might have thought. No one yelled. No one disparaged another’s faith. We mostly told stories from our experience and shared the view from our piece of the world. Precisely what you would expect in authentic dialogue.

Most fundamentally, though, I sensed a hunger to be heard. I wonder how much this hunger pervades all of us. We have these fascinating stories that are our stories, our contribution to the world. Many of us are, deep down, bursting to tell them—and they could make a difference in someone’s life if we do. Yet we have fewer and fewer places to tell our stories, thanks to the manic pace of modern life and our excessive individualism and a hundred other factors.

All of these hungers surfaced in one Sonoma café on one night. Seeing them filled, even if in part, was profoundly moving. It was a night that deserves celebration—a small sign of hope in a world that needs it.

Dialogue When the Sparks Fly

Bad moods and Facebook are generally a lousy mix. We’ve all heard warnings about that. In most cases, I can back away from the keyboard long enough to calm down.

Sunday was different. As you might expect, it left me with some lessons for dialogue.

The dustup started when a Facebook friend—someone who consistently posts intelligent comments—called my hobby “boring.” I instantly turned into a little ball of indignation, and I let her have it. No cussing, mind you, no personal remarks, but a lot of capital letters and exclamation points.

As soon as I hit Send, I felt queasy about it. Expressions of anger do not come easily to me, and I always feel the need to apologize immediately afterward. This time, though, I felt I had a point, so rather than a mea culpa, I sent another, calmer comment explaining myself.

About 15 minutes later, a third person raised the notion that I may have misinterpreted the original comment. My Facebook friend wasn’t calling my hobby boring; she was relaying a popular perception about my hobby.

Whoops. OK, now an apology makes sense.

So, what does this have to do with dialogue? Three things come to mind:

  1. Our raw nerves can surprise us. Yes, I love my hobby, but I had no clue it was a hot button until someone hit it. In the same way, we may set off an angry reaction from someone else when we least expect it. The lesson here for all participants, I think, is to stop, breathe, observe the reaction, and either try to discover the source or set the reaction aside for reflection later. That can help us continue the dialogue by short-circuiting any cycle of hostility that may emerge.
  2. Not every communication is crystal clear. Obviously. We’ve all been cautioned to choose our words carefully when emailing or posting to social media, because people can’t hear tone of voice, or read body language, or even pick up proper context in electronic media. Even when we think we’re crystal clear—and I’m sure my friend thought she was—there’s always the chance of misunderstanding. Being awake to that chance enables us to hold our words lightly and respond thoughtfulness when someone misconstrues our thinking.
  3. Dialogue isn’t always “nice.” Some people see dialogue as a way to dodge conflict, or avoid having convictions, or be otherwise mushy of thinking. Nonsense. In dialogue, we can express ourselves forcefully; we can channel our anger into our words. It is a powerful way to communicate to our dialogue partners that “I care deeply about this.” The trick is to frame our vehemence so our partners understand the context and intensity level from which we’re speaking. A simple introductory statement, such as “Pardon me, I may get emotional about this,” prepares the other people involved and allows them to respond from a place of understanding rather than knee-jerk hostility. Precision of language is essential here. So is the ability, on the receiving end, to stop, breathe, and hear the message behind the anger, rather than respond in kind.

What about you? What other lessons would you have drawn from this conflict? What have you learned from your own dustups with people? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Yeah, but YOUR Candidate…

This pattern has probably been around since the first election. My sense, though, is that we’re hearing more of it than usual. See if you agree.

Imagine that I have decided to vote for Barack Obama and you have decided to vote for Mitt Romney. We’re having coffee one day, and you say something critical about Obama. At this point, I have several options. I can mull over what you just said, determine whether it has merit in my opinion, and respond to you directly. That comes closest to dialogue.

I could also defend the president against the criticism you made. Though that leans more toward debate or conversation than dialogue, it could lead to a healthy, vigorous exchange of views. We might both gain some insight from it.

A third option seems to be the most popular these days. In response to your criticism of Obama, I respond instantly with a criticism of Romney. My point may not even cover the same topic as your point. Perhaps you criticized Obamacare and I disparage Romney’s vast wealth.  In essence, we stop talking with each other, or even to each other, and start talking past each other.

OK, so this third option does come with the territory of politics. But at times, it seems to be all I hear—not only from folks like us, but from the candidates themselves. While they have certainly spent time laying out their basic positions (the viability of these positions, and the unspoken details, are quite another matter), there just seems to be a higher percentage of trash talk in the air.

And that leads me to wonder: do we have so little to say in favor of our own candidates that we have no choice but to trash the other candidate?

There may be something to this. Both candidates, as we discussed last week, have substantial flaws. Many Republicans have found it difficult to generate enthusiasm for Romney. Many Democrats are disillusioned with Obama. This is too bad, because (as we also discussed last week) both candidates have considerable qualifications. We could do—and have done—much worse.

The issue with the high percentage of other-candidate-trashing, from what I can see, is that it saps our energy, heightens our cynicism, and sharpens our divides, leaving us with few personal resources to do the hard work of democracy (i.e., to participate actively in improving our civic and community life).  A civil delineation of differences, on the other hand, can enlighten us. And a description of a candidate’s strengths and accomplishments might even inspire us to think that, maybe, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if said candidate got into office.

Are you hearing this too? More than the usual percentage of trash talk? I’d love to hear your perspective, so feel free to share it here (or on Facebook).

When a Dialogue on Guns Breaks Out—or Two or Three

Sometimes people inspire the hell out of me. That includes some of you over the past three weeks.

In my last post—shortly after the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado—I posed a few questions for people on both sides of the ongoing debate over gun ownership.  The public square was abuzz with many of the typical catchphrases and hostilities that typically pervade this debate. I was hoping that maybe these questions could spark a dialogue.

Boy, did they ever.

A small but dedicated group of people responded with the most thoughtful comments I’ve seen on the topic. One or two of them are involved in the field of dialogue and deliberation; the rest are people I know from other parts of my life. Most people restated their long-held positions, but at a level of detail and consideration that provided plenty of insight for me—and, I hope, anyone reading these comments.

Just in case you weren’t privy to these conversations, I want to share them with you. Take a look at the comments below. Then go to my Facebook page (the Timeline version) and scroll down or search the word questions or gun. Let me know if you can’t find it, and I’ll try to direct you to where it is. (Facebook technology sometimes eludes me.)

Thank you to those who have contributed. And believe me, it’s not too late. Please jump in.

Maybe We Shouldn’t Write Them Off Just Yet

Earlier this summer, I had a run-in with one of our neighbors. He inquired about a matter that he saw as an affront to his property rights. (It was. My wife had an agreement with his wife, but…well, it’s a long story.) I asked him a clarifying question, but my tone of voice was all wrong, and in hindsight I can see why he heard it as he did. Things escalated quickly. Expletives were used. I quickly walked away.

In my mind, however, I took one more step.

Incidents like this completely unglue me, and I usually react by writing the person off. This was no exception. I did everything I could not to cross the property line anymore. I didn’t even allow myself to look in their yard (except furtively, on occasion). In essence, I sealed this fellow off from my consciousness.

I started revisiting this run-in during our conversation about last week’s post. Several of you wrote about people who had approached you not just with adamant opinions, but with hostility and vitriolic words. You talked about keeping silence and just walking away.

This type of situation comes up a lot in discussions I’ve had about dialogue. People use it to point out the limits of dialogue, and I agree. In the short term, clamming up and walking away is the best part of wisdom. Our intensity is so strongly engaged that we probably will not present our views in the best or most dialogic light. We may well end up saying things we don’t mean. And even if we could explain ourselves calmly, our adversaries are not at all inclined to hear us.

But that’s not all I did. By writing off my neighbor, I excluded him from playing any role whatever in my life. I also eliminated the possibility of enjoying a peaceful neighborly relationship with him. The best I could hope for was a tense standoff, an uneasy (if permanent) truce.

I’m not the only one who does this. Look at our public square: not only do we argue with the “other side,” we dismiss the notion that they could have anything valuable to say to us. In the process, we dismiss them as people. We lose out on the wisdom that they carry within themselves, and we miss the opportunity for a peaceful—and who knows? maybe even fruitful—relationship.

Several weeks after our run-in, a house caught fire on our block, and neighbors gathered. My wife found herself standing right next to my adversary and his wife. They fell to chatting, and lo and behold, she discovered that he’s actually a good guy. But I, with my stance toward him, would never have found out.

Sometimes, particularly when our safety is at stake, we have no choice but to write someone off. In our culture at large, however, we err on the side of doing so too quickly. What might happen if we held open the channel between us and our adversaries a bit longer?