Archive for the ‘Practical Steps Toward Dialogue’ Category
This past weekend I found myself in Drummondville, Quebec, about an hour east of Montreal, waiting to place my breakfast order at a Tim Horton’s. As you might expect, the menu and the chatter of the counter staff were entirely in French.
French is not my first language.
Thanks to C. Douglas Fenner and several other great teachers, I speak French tolerably well. I understand spoken French less well. And when the speakers are Québécois—whose French is different from what I learned in high school, and who speak much faster—I might catch one word out of every 10.
That, of course, makes ordering breakfast an adventure.
I didn’t know how to say oatmeal, but a photo of a steaming bowl shone brightly from the overhead menu, so I plucked the right word from there. My counter person asked me a question, which I initially fumbled, then understood as “for here or to go?” (I heard the words pour ici—“for here”—and that was enough.) So far, so good. I ordered my coffee just fine—large, cream, two sugars—and paid and waited.
Suddenly another employee stepped up and asked me a rapid-fire question. I didn’t catch a single word. So I resorted to my default answer: oui.
It wasn’t completely ignorant. As she spoke, I thought about where we were in the transaction and what she might possibly be asking. It had to be about toppings for the oatmeal. Fortunately, I like just about any and every topping on my oatmeal, so oui was pretty low risk.
And high reward: the oatmeal was delicious.
Why am I telling this story? Because it started me thinking about the value of paying attention to the here and now—more than that, to everything in the here and now (in a word, mindfulness). When you’re awake to everything, you pick up cues that might otherwise elude you. Suddenly two words in a 10-word sentence are enough. A sharp eye on the process, especially a process as familiar as ordering at a coffee shop, enables a response that just might make sense.
We do this all the time in one-on-one interactions: we read facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, etc., and our understanding is much better than if we just heard the words. While this sort of attention is helpful one on one, it can make the difference between success and disaster in group interactions.
I’ll tell you a story or two about groups next time. For now: have you had an experience like my Tim Horton’s saga? How did you navigate it? What did it teach you?
Something in my Facebook feed stopped me cold.
Two somethings, actually. Both had to do with Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old who, with two pastors, was arrested for feeding homeless people in Fort Lauderdale. Abbott et al. ran afoul of a new city ordinance that addresses what officials see as their homeless problem.
Two posts in my Facebook feed alerted me to the story. The first came from a progressive friend who bemoaned the heartlessness she saw in the city’s response. The second, hard on the heels of the first, came from a conservative friend who bemoaned the heartlessness she saw in the city’s response.
Can anyone say common ground?
Dialogue practitioners use the search for common ground as a powerful strategy for individual dialogues. Common ground humanizes us in the eyes of the other, and vice versa. If you and your convictions make my blood boil, and it comes to light that we feel the same way about something—it could be anything—this discovery can take the edge off my hostility. As my hostility abates, my capacity for listening grows.
So allow me a modest suggestion: let’s extend the search for common ground beyond instances of dialogue—and into every interaction in our lives.
Here’s what it might look like in miniature. One of my Facebook friends, a classmate from my alma mater, is both a rock-ribbed conservative and outspoken about it. Her words are often incendiary, and I have nearly unfriended her more than once. (I’m stunned that she hasn’t unfriended me.)
Every now and then, however, she’ll post something in praise of someone in military service, or in praise of God. I find myself agreeing, and I post a comment standing in solidarity with her. It’s common ground expressed.
Of course, this sort of thing may make no difference at all. But let’s say she and I have to resolve a problem. There’s a small chance that she’ll go into the dialogue thinking, “My goodness, Backman is a liberal jerk. But all in all, he’s not that bad. He loves Jesus, etc.” Her heart opens a little to hearing me. And vice versa: I remember the times we’ve connected, and my heart opens a little.
Maybe it makes the difference between failure and success.
What if we did this on a larger scale? What if we laid the ground for common ground with everyone we know on the “other side”? What are the chances we might become more openhearted in our deepest selves?
Have you ever tried this? What happened?
I’m so disillusioned with my Town Board right now.
The story starts late last year. One of the newest amendments to the New York Constitution, approved by voters this past November, has paved the way for construction of up to four casinos upstate, including (probably) one in my region. Predictably, some high-powered private partnerships, together with their “host” municipalities, jumped into the competition. One of those municipalities is my town.
Now I have always thought of casinos as a terrible idea, for the usual reasons cited: gambling addiction, crime, property value decline, etc. So, during a morning with Google Scholar, I was surprised to find that the research paints a very mixed picture. Casinos can deliver economic benefits, but intensifying competition is limiting their ability to do so. Addiction is serious business, but the percentage of problem gamblers is around 1-3%. Etc.
So I was more open to the idea of a casino in my town. And I looked forward to our town leaders doing similar web searches, engaging in similar thinking, listening to constituents, and making a reasoned decision.
Apparently, it didn’t turn out that way.
First came an unannounced Town Board meeting during which the members voted unanimously to endorse a casino in the town. In the face of vocal opposition, the Board scheduled a developer presentation and one public hearing with the typical “three minutes at the mike” format. Days later, the Board took a revote, required for technical reasons, and again endorsed the casino unanimously.
Except for the first meeting, this might sound innocuous. The real fly in the ointment, though, was the lack of response to residents’ concerns exhibited throughout the process. During the public hearing, Board members said barely a word. Many of us sent detailed emails asking the Board to conduct due diligence; I (and presumably others) received a form email in return. Most communication about the casino has come from the developers, not the Board. And meeting notes, made public via a Freedom of Information request, seem to indicate that the Board served as marketing partner for the developers from the very beginning—no hint of due diligence or objective analysis whatever.
What can we learn from this?
One Board member complained about the impossible time frame for the whole bid process, let alone any attempts at dialogue or civic engagement, and she has a point. Her objection led me to the handy Engagement Streams Framework, published by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (where I’m a board member), to see what dialogue processes might have accommodated the compressed schedule. At first glance, the pickings are somewhat slim: a scaled-up version of Conversation Café might have worked, or maybe a variant of the Wisdom Council.
In some ways, though, that’s beside the point. Even if many dialogue processes can’t happen in crunch time, basic communication can: that’s why we have the Internet. More fundamentally, even the best and most efficient dialogue process assumes a personal orientation to listen. That was what our Board members have, from what I’ve seen, failed to demonstrate.
As a caveat: I attended most of the public meetings but not all of them. I do not know the Board members personally. They might have a compelling backstory that would make sense of their actions in a way residents could respect. Communicating that backstory might have mollified a lot of the hostility—or at least indicated the Board’s sincerity in serving its constituents.
As it is, there are a lot of questions and, in response, an unfortunate silence.
(As always, your comments are welcome. In this case, comments from Board members are most welcome. I would love to hear your take on the situation.)
…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.
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.
Two wildly different stories from last weekend, and what they might teach us about dialogue:
The introverts’ lunch. I just spent four days in Chicago at Live It Out, the 2014 conference of the Gay Christian Network. The structure of this conference was unusual: the occasional plenary session or workshop block surrounded by large swaths of time to connect with others in the LGBTQIA community.
Something about this format played right into my limitations. My inner introvert simply couldn’t figure out how to flow with the informality of it all. I felt lost and awkward and unsure how to proceed.
Thank God for the whiteboards. Anyone could pick up a magic marker and scrawl out a message, invitation, tip, or what have you on these boards. Many established groups had posted their get-togethers.
Inspired (quite literally, I believe), I posted the suggestion of an introverts’ lunch.
Apparently it caught the eye of other introverts: when lunchtime came, and I arrived at the designated meeting place, four people were waiting. We had a wonderful time at the Rockit Bar & Grill. (Travel tip: if you like butternut squash soup, you must try Rockit’s.) Contrary to stereotypes of introversion, the conversation never flagged. And somehow, from that lunch, I gathered whatever it took to flow with the rest of the conference.
Shoeshine Ken. There’s something about Chicago’s street people that I’ve missed in other major cities: rather than beg, a number of them sell. One (may or may not have been a street person, but he approached me on the street) sold me his demo hip-hop CD. Another asked me to buy postcards to fund a mission.
And then, walking down Michigan Avenue, I heard this gravelly voice remarking on my boots and how I should clean them. Before I knew it, Shoeshine Ken had squirted some lotion on my footwear and was telling me, alternately, about his life and the need for good shoe care.
I know, I know. You’re “supposed to” ignore these folks. But if I had, I would have missed one of the richest experiences of my weekend. For about 20 minutes, Ken and I talked about the geography of being homeless in Chicago. I heard about Lower Wacker (under which many people sleep at night), social services for homeless people, the value of a good heating grate in subzero weather, and how Ken plies his trade where many wealthy people and their shine-eligible shoes pass by.
So here’s what these stories are teaching me to do:
- Talk with anyone. Everyone. The famous conference speaker has something to teach us, to be sure. But so does the hesitant introvert, the young person wrestling with gender identity, the homeless entrepreneur. Yes, there can be safety issues, and one should keep oneself safe. But if you can manage it, don’t let the opportunity pass by.
- Find a way that works for you. In many situations, it’s not just about screwing up courage to talk with people or join a group lunch or what have you. More often it’s about creating structures, like the introverts’ lunch, where dialogue can take root. These structures can be practical, like strategies, or they can be internal, like the transformation of our hearts toward curiosity and compassion.
That second point teaches me something else too: something broader. Dialogue is difficult. Life is difficult. Sometimes, like many homeless people, we can do very little on our own to improve our situations. But sometimes—as with me and my introverts’ lunch, or Ken and his shoeshine business, or adversaries in a delicate dialogue—we can do something. And that something can occasionally make a big impact.
It’s the beauty of our species: our innate ability to do things—things that foster not only dialogue, but the fruitfulness of our lives.
It doesn’t feel good to criticize The PBS NewsHour. The program is one of my favorite sources of news and insight; the producers take extraordinary care in selecting guests for each segment, bringing together experts that together present a careful, balanced, in-depth analysis.
This past Friday, though, one segment disturbed me—and, in the process, served to remind me of the need for a “balanced media diet.”
The story concerned the recent violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, and the role of al-Qaeda therein. I was delighted with their choice of guests: former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a great deal time in Anbar and has written extensively on the war.
The longer they talked, though, the less I could escape the nagging sense that a huge part of the story was missing.
This nagging sense didn’t come in a vacuum. Last September, at a conference on communication and conflict, I heard a penetrating analysis by Ahmed Hassin, a researcher at Australia’s Deakin University, on the role of traditional clans in supporting the nascent democracy in Iraq. Ahmed’s presentation astounded me with a level of nuance that is almost impossible to find in American reporting on the Middle East.
That nuance haunted me as I listened to the NewsHour guests. So I decided to take a look at Iraqi news sources to see what they had to say.
Sure enough, there was a lot more to this story than met the eye.
Crocker and West spoke confidently about al-Qaeda overplaying its hand, the clans united against al-Qaeda, and even “good guys” and “bad guys.” Aswat al Iraq and Iraq Daily described Sunni-Shiite tensions over the lack of Sunni representation in government, security forces’ breakup of a Sunni protest site, the resignation of 44 Members of Parliament over said breakup, etc.
Were Crocker and West wrong? Not necessarily. It’s hard to dispute calling al-Qaeda “the bad guys,” of course. Widespread clan resistance to al-Qaeda may still be in place. Still, the Iraqi news media made it clear that the situation is more nuanced—and perhaps less boldly optimistic—than the NewsHour guests described it.
The point here is not so much to sort out the “real story” in this specific situation as it is to point out the value of the “balanced media diet”: news from sources diverse in terms of geography, nationality, political orientation, culture, even ethnicity and gender. When we absorb this diversity of news, we see that few stories are as simple as one news segment from a single source will make them appear. Certainly few stories are as simple as partisans make them out to be.
Once we see the depth and nuance behind an issue, we realize what we know and, more important, how much we don’t know. This realization, in turn, can fuel our curiosity—and our willingness to hear others whose views may not be the same as ours. Over time, we start looking for depth and nuance in other issues, which gives rise to nagging discomfort like the type I felt during the NewsHour segment.
Have you ever noticed this? Did a news story leave you with the feeling that something was wrong, or at least incomplete? Feel free to share your story here.
Maybe it’s that I’m reading Alice Walker’s incredible The Color Purple just as the commentary around Trayvon Martin has taken center stage again. Whatever the reason, the loud, angry cacophony about race in America has cut me to the heart—and rattled my cage.
Like many white people, I first grew aware of this cacophony because of the O. J. Simpson verdict, with the stark difference in interpretation of the evidence along racial lines. Since then I’ve read some, listened to wisdom from some great thinkers (like Judith Katz, a pioneer of the idea of white awareness), and have some grasp of what I should do and how I should think around this issue.
The shoulds can be useful guides. Ultimately, though, whatever I do and think has to come from me—from my deepest self. I am just starting to glimpse what that is. And one part of it may be helpful to white Americans like me who are struggling to understand, on a heart and gut level, the dimensions of the conversation on race.
So, white Americans, here’s an idea to chew on:
Each of us grows up with a story. It tells us who we are, who our family is, and particularly what our society is and how it works. For those of us with things in common, our stories hold some things in common—especially about society.
This is true of us as white people. We’ve learned that the policeman is our friend. We know that there are no limits to how far you can go or what you can do. We’ve heard that we live in a post-racial society.
That is our story.
Over the years, we have heard it a lot. So often, in fact, that for us it becomes a given. It is no longer a story about reality; we think it is reality—“the way things are.”
Then we get the O. J. trial. And Trayvon Martin. And suddenly we see that at least one other group of people—African Americans—has a different story. On many points, their story contradicts our story.
All this is indisputable.
The question is what we do with it. And for people of dialogue, the answer is surprisingly clear.
As people of dialogue, we know that each of us is exactly one person among billions, with one person’s perspective among billions. Our knowledge is fantastically limited, our ability to be certain even more so. Those simple facts drive me into dialogue with you—because if I know so little, I want to hear what you know, so together we may get closer: to the truth of the situation, to a way forward, to mutual understanding.
In this case, as white people of dialogue, what we do next is listen. Long, intently, without interrupting.
This is particularly important in the U.S., where the dominant story—the white story—so often drowns out the other stories. Where for large swaths of our history as a nation, those other stories were seen as nearly sacrilegious, and their storytellers threats.
How do we start to listen? As my friend Paige Baker has pointed out to me, volumes have been written about these other stories. It behooves me to read them. I need giant portions of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and others like them.
I think dialogue as a habit of the heart can play an important role here. As white Americans, we have heard our story for many years. It will take years for us to absorb the other stories. That calls for an inner orientation toward listening that enables a continual readiness. Whenever the conversation comes up—with a friend, in the media, wherever—we are ready to listen because our whole selves are tuned that way.
So. Can we listen for a while? A long while? Do you see the value?
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.
I’m trying out a new meditation exercise. If you like, give it a whirl, and see what you think.
Prepare for meditation in the usual way. Sit comfortably, eyes open or closed. Take a few deep breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Let your mind go blank.
Now, focus your attention on someone who drives you berserk.
It could be someone you know personally, someone in the media…whoever. The key is to simply observe that person. If you start to judge her or his opinions, marshal counterarguments, or feel your blood pressure rise, note it, and let it go.
If extraneous thoughts arise, note them too, and let them go. If they keep returning, pay attention. Someone may be trying to tell you something.
I tried this exercise for the first time at the 34th annual convention of the International Listening Association, where I had the privilege of presenting with listening expert and friend Kay Lindahl. During the session, we ran a 10-minute meditation period in which participants could focus their attention in one of several directions. A few people tried the exercise above, and the results (like so many things at this conference) were deeply satisfying.
One participant spoke of an adversary at work, and how observing him in the meditation raised open, honest questions about why he was so confrontational. Another participant described an obnoxious client and how the meditation framed the issue at hand (he saw the conflict as standing at the gates of hell).
Meanwhile, I focused on someone who has encroached substantially on my personal space. The desire of my heart is to extend compassion to this person, but in the meditation I confronted my inability to do so, due to my standard response to encroachment: to push away. I wondered if there was another way into that compassion.
In each case, the meditation began to break up logjams, however large or small. I wonder if that’s the value of it: it surfaces our emotional reactions to the adversary, the conditions of mind and spirit that block us from connecting with that person, new insights about the conflict that ease our hostility and move us toward alternatives for approaching it.
At any rate, I offer it to you as a possible tool toward inner transformation, and from there to reconciliation. If you use it, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Feel free to share them here, on my Facebook page, or via direct contact.