Archive for the ‘Other people’s good ideas’ Category
Lately I’ve been writing about civic infrastructure here.
Civic what now, you say? Don’t worry; it’s still a new term. If, however, you’re seriously interested in dialogue, you’ll want to know about civic infrastructure, as there’s a ton of buzz in the field about it these days.
Think of it this way. Every town or city needs physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, water mains, sewage lines, power transmission, etc. Similarly, every town or city needs civic infrastructure: community groups, meetings, activities, etc., that bring people together to address their challenges.
In other words, civic infrastructure brings people together for dialogue.
That’s what happened with Columbia Parents for Public Schools (CPPS). The public schools in Columbia, Missouri, enjoyed a stellar reputation until the late 1990s, when that perception came under attack from several quarters. CPPS was founded to restore the schools’ image and, as part of that, to foster dialogue among people across local constituencies. The resulting success has made CPPS a model of how civic infrastructure can enhance dialogue—and, in the process, move a city forward.
You can read the full story on the blog of CommunityMatters, a partnership that equips cities and towns to re-create themselves, strengthen their places, and inspire change. It’s the first in a series I’ll be writing there about examples of this critical piece of creating dialogue. Have a look.
Sometimes, when we least expect it, we are called to live out what we say or think. Some people do this very, very well.
Professor Paul F. Knitter had explored and taught interfaith dialogue for many years when his wife converted from the Catholic faith they shared to Buddhism. As he writes, it was not enough for him to accept his wife’s change of heart. It was not even enough to actively affirm it. He had to engage her newfound faith—and let it reshape his own. What happened as a result is one of the best illustrations of dialogue’s possibilities that I’ve seen. So I will get out of the way and let Professor Knitter tell you his story.
Think of something you accept as a given: a universal truth, “just the way it is.”
Now ask yourself this: is there any chance that your given is not universal? What would it take to make you see it differently? What might happen if you did?
At the beginning of this month, I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd Global Conference on Communication and Conflict, sponsored by Inter-Disciplinary.Net. About 25 scholars came and presented from all over the world. We heard about topics from media in Brazil to terrorism in Indonesia, from active listening techniques to the role of the human heart in communication. It was brilliant, warm, and collegial.
And it challenged some of my universals in ways I never could have anticipated. Consider these tidbits:
- Remember the flap over Somali pirates a few years back? (If you don’t, you soon will, given the upcoming movie.) If ever there were a clear case of good vs. evil, this was it, right? Not so fast: according to Sarah Craze of the University of Melbourne (Australia), the pirates see themselves not as raiding on the high seas, but rather as safeguarding the marine rights and economic security of their clans in a stateless society. Most telling is the Somali word for these “pirates,” which translates to something like “coast guard.”
- For those of us in the U.S., it is easy to hear “Arab tribes” and immediately add the word warring—as if warring is all Arab tribes did. But Ahmed Hassin, who teaches at Deakin University, detailed the essential role of Iraqi tribes in managing conflict and preserving what stability there is in the country after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
- Richard Harris of Japan’s Chukyo University spoke about the spaces—physical, cultural, geographic, etc.—in which communication takes place. In the process, he discussed profound variations among regional understandings of what we might think of as givens. Take, for instance, the concept of home: for billions of people, it’s not a single-nuclear-family dwelling with a dog and a yard.
It is tempting to read these papers and wonder whether the whole notion of universals is obsolete. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. The overwhelming majority of the world, for instance, has come to the point of asserting that murder, human sacrifice, and slavery are wrong. Monastics and mystics across many traditions seem to agree that compassion, self-giving, and a concern with equity lie at the heart of the divine essence. Neither of these examples is ironclad, but they are enough, I think, to render “everything is relative” overly simplistic.
The point here, though, is that there are fewer universals than we think. And few things open our eyes to this more convincingly than dialogue across boundaries of culture, geography, ethnicity, and faith. The encounter with something radically different from our own world, when heard open-heartedly, can dislodge us from our certainties. We realize that “even where I am sure, I could be wrong.”
Once that door to uncertainty cracks open, we can suddenly hear our dialogue partner’s radically different viewpoint clearly. More than that, we want to hear it clearly. We are poised to hear her explanation, what she might have to say, what ramifications may arise, how it might affect or expand our own wisdom. It is an exhilarating moment if we let it be.
It is not easy to react this way. But it is tremendously rewarding. And the connections it creates can lead to mutual understanding, a slightly better understanding of the truth, and one extra brick in the foundation of peacemaking across divides.
I had a great blog post planned for this week—until a quote from a friend got in the way.
If you’ve read my book or other things from me, you probably know what I think about our most cherished convictions. We invest a lot of our lives in forming them. They guide us as we try to navigate through life. They may well reflect a piece of Reality and, as such, must be taken seriously.
But ultimately, we are one person among billions, with one set of convictions among billions. Our ability to know The Truth as a whole, on our own, is negligible. So when we enter into dialogue, we set aside those convictions—at least temporarily—to open ourselves fully to hearing the truth that the other has to offer. On a grander scale, holding our convictions lightly enables us to listen more open-heartedly to Reality as a whole, which in turn aligns our deepest selves toward that Reality.
I’ve said all this before, but then, today, a friend sent me a quote from Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, prodigious writer, and towering intellect on the contemplative life. In his book Thoughts in Solitude, he wrote the following. The first two sentences relate directly to holding things lightly; see what you can make out of the rest of the quote.
We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them we begin to appreciate them as they really are. Only then can we begin to see God in them. Not until we find Him in them, can we start on the road of dark contemplation at whose end we shall be able to find them in Him.
What thoughts does this quote bring up for you?
Somewhere around fifth grade, our class had a unit on “being a good listener.” I think it lasted a week. Now, in contrast, I’m starting to think we can never learn enough about listening—or listen as deeply as we could.
This idea started emerging a few weeks ago, during the 34th annual convention of the International Listening Association. Surely there was a lot to learn, with sessions on pre-listening (that was the session I co-facilitated with author Kay Lindahl), listening in education and healthcare, listening across cultures, the measurement of listening, cognitive processes, and other topics. Academic papers were read, capstone presentations presented, meditation practiced, and participants sent out to a nearby park to offer “Free Listening” to passers-by.
Since listening plays an indispensable role in dialogue, and I’ve been practicing dialogue for years, I think of myself as a good listener. Still, this conference deepened my approach to listening—and taught me several other lessons as well. A few of my personal highlights:
- In An Introduction to Compassionate Listening, I heard about—and experienced—attentive listening taken to an entirely new level. We listened with our hands on our hearts, to remind us continually of the source of listening with compassion. We fixed our gaze on another person and listened with full focus, dispensing with any reaction whatever (even the head nod). We heard of a facilitator’s upcoming life decision and spoke what we heard of her situation, feelings, and values.
- In our session, I was reminded that nothing is as important as what happens during the session, in that room, at that time. The first two parts of our presentation (about contemplation and reflection to prepare our souls for listening) ran long, so I had to jettison a third part for which I’d prepared extensively. No matter. What actually happened—what we as a group created in that session—was far more fruitful than anything I could script.
- In Listening through Strategic Questioning, I got healed—I think. Rick Bommelje, president of the Leadership & Listening Institute at Rollins College, facilitated a session in which we practiced asking “honest, open questions” of one another: questions to which the questioner cannot possibly know the answer, questions designed to facilitate the hearer’s listening to her “inner teacher.” In a small group, I spoke openly of the doubt that has plagued me continually over the past several years. Somehow, giving voice to this doubt, and pondering the questions that followed, have replaced the doubt with a confidence I had not known before. Talk about power.
How much difference can one conference make? Since ILA, I find myself saying less—and stopping when my “inner teacher” tells me I have taken up my share of the airwaves. I find myself listening without response, posing open and honest questions, focusing more intently on everyone and everything around me. I have done most of these things before. I am doing them more consistently now.
What is the most powerful experience you have had while listening, or being listened to? Please feel free to share them here or on Facebook.
One great joy of writing a book, from my perspective, is speaking about it at various venues and hearing the wisdom of the people who attend. In the five months since Why Can’t We Talk? was published, I have run into some very intelligent people who have thrown me some very hard questions. Sometimes the topic was something dear to my heart, and I had a ready answer. Other times I had nothing.
So let’s try something new here—a real live book giveaway.
Every now and then, I’ll feature one of these hard questions here. You post your answers in the Comments section below (or on my Facebook page). Then, the next time I post, I’ll share how I answered the question—and give away a free copy of Why Can’t We Talk? to someone chosen at random who:
- Provides a comment on the question below (something more than “I agree”), and
- Subscribes to my e-newsletter (via the “Get dialogue news by email” box to the left).
Please subscribe and make your comments by next Tuesday (March 19) at 8:00 a.m. ET.
OK. Ready? Here’s the first question:
I am a leader in my worship community who deals with many volunteers. Occasionally I run into someone who says, “If we go in this direction, I’ll have no choice but to leave.” How can I deal with this situation? Is there a dialogic way to do so?
Program note: If you are in or around Boston this weekend—specifically, somewhere near Taunton, Massachusetts—please feel free to come see me on the Great Taunton Mini-Book Tour. I would love to see you there! Schedule:
- 9:00 a.m. on the radio (WVBF 1530AM)
- 2:00 p.m. at Readmore Bookstore
- 7:00 p.m. at the First Parish Church in Taunton (UU)
Visit the Facebook page for the church event here.
Do we have to run our politics with daggers drawn? Is confrontation simply part of the game?
Based on the past few years, it’s hard to think otherwise. In the U.S., the climate of hostility, polarization, and refusal to compromise has dominated Washington. Powerful forces conspire to reinforce this climate: the demands of party loyalty, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, the loud fringe groups from left and right, the fear among elected officials of losing their jobs to someone ideologically “purer.” Even those who want to work with the other side find frustrations at every turn—while those who equate dialogue with “selling out” rise to power.
It is tempting to dismiss the whole political arena as hopelessly confrontational—and the notion of dialogue in the halls of power as a pipe dream.
But then there is Nguyen Ngoc Huy, and others like him.
Professor Huy has been called “the Gandhi of Vietnam.” From the waning of French colonial rule through the tumultuous war in the 1960s and well beyond, he devoted his life to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law with a distinctly Vietnamese character. With his law degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the Sorbonne, he taught, conducted research, wrote numerous treatises, spoke frequently, and campaigned tirelessly for his ideas and the welfare of his country. Far from giving up after the Communist takeover of 1975, he spent the last 15 years of his life traveling the globe to draw attention to Vietnam and continue the struggle for his homeland’s freedom.
He also had a penetrating insight into how not to conduct politics.
“He had to deal with all sorts of attacks for his policy,” noted Tran Minh Xuan of the Nguyen Ngoc Huy Foundation in the documentary Nguyen Ngoc Huy: A Fighter for Democracy in Vietnam. “Some people, who could not take it any longer, once encouraged me to attack back. But then Professor Huy said to me, ‘Do not do it. There is no benefit in it.… In the future, there will be times when we will need them, or they will need us. But if we have attacked one another, how then will we be able to sit down together to discuss matters? In this huge struggle, one cannot do it alone. We need many people working together.’”
The professor’s words call to mind another arena that involves both power and confrontation: the Anglican Communion and its U.S. version, The Episcopal Church. Over the past few decades, the Communion has seen more than its share of angry words over such issues as human sexuality and the historic truths of the faith. At one point, it threatened to break the Communion apart.
During that time, as I wrote in my book, “Dialogue does not always resolve differences; some are simply irreconcilable. Yet even when they are, authentic dialogue can help us develop respect for one another while still (amicably) disagreeing. In the process, the connections we foster enable us to continue our work together as our institutions fracture.” To paraphrase Professor Huy, if we keep the dialogue going—if we refrain from attacking one another—we might still be able to work together.
If Professor Huy—who sat across the table from his enemies at the Paris Peace Talks, who promoted bold ideas and continually engaged in the rough and tumble of Vietnam’s political arena—could uphold the value of reaching across divides, why can’t our elected officials, and our church leaders, do the same?
One of my hobbies revolves around friendly competition. Several times a year, we gather at shows in which judges evaluate our latest exhibits, place them in order of quality, and give out awards like Best in Show. Inevitably, the exhibitors compare notes about judges too.
This kind of talk is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, good judges help exhibitors get better at their hobby, so it’s important to know whose judging to take with utmost seriousness and whose to, well, take with a grain of salt. On the other hand, as with any small group of human beings, the conversation often turns negative and personal—evaluation as bitch session. “I don’t like the way she handles the exhibits” can degenerate into “she’s a terrible judge” and, in some cases, “I don’t like her.”
In the last couple of days, a thread on this very topic has popped up on Facebook. It is remarkable for its civil, constructive tone—and for that I credit the person who started the topic and how she framed it:
While at the show [last weekend], there was a discussion on judges. Who we liked to show under and who we didn’t and WHY. I personally have judges I will never show under again, and others I will travel way far to be judged by. … So, what I am asking is for everyone to take a moment and share what draws and what repulses you from judges. I am not asking for names, just qualities you are looking for. Perhaps we can all learn from this. And judges, please weigh in with your comments as well!
Dialogue experts talk a lot about framing: how we use language to present a concept so that people can discuss it without feeling threatened. I see several sterling examples of framing here:
- “I am not asking for names, just qualities.” Two words here signal that the conversation will not be about people. By itself, “I am not asking for names” could possibly have led to comments like “Not naming names here, but there’s one left-handed brown-haired judge from a certain part of New York who….” By asking for just qualities, our poster guided future comments into a discussion that any judge could use—without putting this or that judge on the spot.
- “Take a moment and share.” Contrast this with the headline I’ve seen in local newspaper columns that print call-in comments: Sound Off! The poster’s language indicates the tone desired in the comments to come—reflective, offered as one personal perspective among many, no authoritative pronouncements or pointless complaining.
- “Perhaps we can all learn from this.” The point is not to find fault, but to learn and thereby improve the hobby we all love. The word learn itself reflects a virtue I believe is essential for dialogue: humility—the ability, in this case, to recognize that we do not have all the answers.
- “Judges, please weigh in with your comments.” The invitation extends to both sides of the table. Judges can learn from exhibitors here (and, as a recently licensed judge, I learned a ton) and vice versa.
Good framing often yields good results, and that was certainly the case here. The conversation was long and fruitful, and I’ll bet it results in a better hobby all the way round.
Where have you seen examples of good framing like the one above? Please share your experiences here.
Odds and ends for a Monday morning…
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Whenever Tom Atlee publishes an article, people who value dialogue should pay attention. Most recently, on the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) blog, Tom posted a compelling piece about three categories of “sensibility” in our public square—one of which should get way more attention than it does.
As we all know, pollsters and pundits excel at reading public opinion. It can change like the wind. On a deeper level, public judgment consists of considered insights and positions that have resulted from weighing pros and cons, hearing from people of diverse viewpoints, etc. It is often the happy outcome of dialogue and deliberation efforts.
Tom posits that in addition to these, we desperately need public wisdom: “an expansion of public judgment to include more of what needs to be taken into account for broad, long-term benefit.” It includes moving beyond current collective interests to moral and ethical quandaries, consideration for future generations, an appreciation for ambiguity and mystery, etc.
Absorbing the concepts in this article will require sustained attention, but the payoff is worth the effort. So grab an extra cup of coffee, put your feet up, and start reading. Oh, and do feel free to comment on the NCDD blog!
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I think of electrifying as applying to events that have already happened. Still, the more I read about NCDD’s 2012 conference in Seattle, the more I believe it will richly deserve that adjective. (Full disclosure: I’m an NCDD board member and a member of the planning committee.)
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, NCDD has devoted the conference to a single question: How can we build a more robust civic infrastructure for our practice, our communities, and our country? In our highly polarized culture, this kind of civic infrastructure (which I define as grassroots structures and systems that would bring way more dialogue and way less shouting to our public square) can ensure that we have the capacity to make better decisions and solve problems effectively. A few elements of the conference, according to a flier on the topic:
- Speakers of distinction. New York Times Notable Book author Eric Liu, AmericaSpeaks founder Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Everyday Democracy executive director Martha McCoy, and others from the top echelon of the field. If you don’t know much about the people in dialogue and deliberation, trust me, this is an extremely impressive lineup.
- Participatory workshops. Opportunities to network with colleagues, learn about the latest innovations, exchange ideas with leaders in the field, experience innovative group methods, and work together to explore key challenges.
- An active role for you. Because every participant has expertise to share, we invite you to contribute your insights toward shaping our civic infrastructure and its key elements: participatory processes for institutions to use, great places and online spaces where citizens can gather, a cadre of trained facilitators, strong networks that can mobilize to solve problems.
In short: this conference just might be an essential milestone in the field. By attending, you could have the opportunity to shape something important, and hear from the leaders in the field, and hang out in Seattle.
I don’t know if I can make it this year—the costs involved in traveling from the East Coast are a challenge—but if you’ll be anywhere near Seattle in October, do consider attending. Visit www.ncdd.org/events for more.
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Book update: Things are progressing very well for the book. Currently it’s slated for release to the world in mid-November, but you can pre-order the book now. Perhaps the biggest news is that there’s been a slight change in title: it now reads Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart. The good marketing people at SkyLight Paths Publishing felt that, since the book is written primarily for Christians (for one reason only: it’s the faith tradition I know and can most credibly speak to), it ought to have the word Christian in the title. On the other hand, we agreed on the more inviting word wisdom—instead of words like tradition or religion or, God forbid, doctrine—because we truly want this book, as much as possible within my limitations as a writer, to be for everyone. Just in case you wondered…
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.