Sign up for newsletter

Get dialogue news by email.

Email *
First Name
We will not give your email address to anyone. Ever.
* Required Field
Let’s connect

Archive for the ‘Practical Steps Toward Dialogue’ Category

Why Does Immigration Matter TO YOU?

I asked myself this question while journaling last week. I did not expect the wild ride through my unconscious that followed.

The question has become central for me because I find myself enraged at people on the other side of the debate: the folks who want to build a wall on the Mexican border, or block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., or press for English-only policies. That persistent rage feels corrosive to my soul, like something I need to work through.

The odd thing is that immigration issues don’t really make an impact on my daily life, at least not on a visceral level. My list of friends is rather thin on people from other countries, and none of them plan on immigrating. My part of the U.S. is not really a magnet for immigrants, as (for instance) California and the Southwest are.

In short, my rage is all out of proportion to the thing that’s triggering it. Over the years, I’ve learned to see that and ask, “What’s going on here?”

Asking that question led me to the question in the title. Why does immigration matter to me?

I started exploring the question in my journal, and it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose. My stance on immigration quickly led to my passion for welcoming everyone carte blanche into my life. That, in turn, pulled me into a whole multitude of issues around loss and grief that I have yet to fully understand. Trust me, they are large issues.

I haven’t come close to revisiting them at this point, one week later. I am not surprised, however, to discover that my iron grip on my beliefs—and the rage that accompanies it—have relaxed a bit.

Next, I imagined putting the same question to a relative who is particularly strident about immigration. I reviewed what I knew of her life situation, talked it over with my wife, and tried to gain an “empathic glimpse.” Sure enough, the answers to “why is immigration important to her?” came quickly: the healthcare benefits that her neighborhood’s immigrants can access and she can’t; the language barriers that make her life difficult because she doesn’t speak Spanish; the economic insecurity she lives with day by day.

Suddenly she seemed more, well, human. Her situation deserved some sympathy (while taking nothing away from the situation of the immigrants themselves). I had a chance, at least, of not letting this issue damage our relationship.

So now I’m wondering: what if we asked that “to you” question regularly, not only of others but, much more important, of ourselves? What if, instead of snapping off a superficial, abstract answer, we slowed down our lives and our hearts enough to consider the question in greater depth? How might the insights we uncover soften the way we approach our adversaries? Might we glimpse the humanity and perhaps the suffering behind their positions?

Is this sufficient for policymaking on an organizational level? Of course not. But I would submit that it is necessary. Asking this question, and listening for the answers, enable us to bring our whole selves to the issue at hand: not just our cerebral sides but our hearts, our shadow sides, everything that might inform a wise (not just a rational) decision.

Have you asked this question of yourself—on any issue? What happened? Feel free to share here.

When New Input Shapes Old Ideas: A Second Look at Walmart

I have to confess: I don’t like Walmart.

I don’t like the layout or the crowds. I don’t like the sub-subsistence wage they pay employees. I don’t like the havoc they wreak on local businesses and communities.

Clearly the entire business is an unmitigated blight on our society.

Clearly I’m as prone to simplistic bias as the next person.

That bias came to light when I woke up last week to a series of reports about Walmart on NPR’s Morning Edition. The segment on workers did highlight the pay issue I mentioned above. It also mentioned Walmart’s employee retirement plan and interviewed neighborhood supporters of the company. It quoted some people as observing that, at least in some communities, Walmart jobs are better than no jobs at all.

The day before, in a segment on community impact, the reporters noted that the Walmart effect is more complex than simply “Walmart comes in and destroys local business.”

Yes, they also raised the oft-repeated criticisms of the company. But overall, the picture presented is more nuanced than I would have thought.

I don’t know why I’m surprised. Time and again I run across input that forces me to re-examine—and usually revise—my opinions and biases. More often than not, these are opinions and biases I didn’t even know I had. The new input uncovers the dross in my inner life and empowers me to change or root it out.

(As a side note, this closely resembles a dynamic well known in the Christian tradition: with divine help, our sinful tendencies become apparent to us, and we strive to clear them out of our hearts in order to make more room for God.)

This attitude toward input is part of fostering dialogue as a habit of the heart. If we give input the opportunity to change our misperceptions, we’ll be more likely to approach the next bit of input anticipating the wisdom it may hold. We bring to it not the usual defensiveness, but a spirit of curiosity and inquiry.

This becomes all-important when that input comes to us face to face, via a living breathing person. Now we are not just welcoming another point of view; we are welcoming the human being behind it. When she says something with which we disagree, we’re more inclined to ask her to explain more, so we can explore the truth with her. And just like that, dialogue begins.

When was the last time you let some new input shape your old ideas? What was it like? Would you do it again, and why or why not?

Dialogue and My Facebook Detox

I’m in the fourth day of Facebook detox.

If you read this space regularly, you’ll know that Facebook has inspired a good many dialogues (and articles) for me. Some of my favorite colleagues I know only through Facebook. It’s become one of the world’s great gathering places, so it would be silly for me not to be there and learn what I can.

And yet it’s just too easy to slip away for a moment, take a quick break from work, disrupt whatever I’m doing to check Facebook. It’s easy to respond to x conversation, add a quick comment on y page, maybe post an update or a question of my own, watch that video (it’s only two minutes)….

Before I know it, my concentration’s shot. I don’t know what or how much I’ve accomplished. Each day ends with a vague sense of waste. So I’m off (or nearly off) Facebook, at least for a few days.

This seems to be the way life goes, for many of us at least. We engage, we retreat. We make our mark in the public square, we withdraw to reflect and recharge.

It’s hardly a new idea. Early Christian thinkers spilled a lot of ink reflecting on “the active life” vs. “the contemplative life” and opining which was better. In modern times the general conversation speaks of introversion and extroversion.

For me, the best is a blend of both—or, rather, a flow between the two. I’ve spent much of my life in a more contemplative place. Now, with the book and the articles and the conferences and whatnot, my life has taken an active turn, without leaving the contemplative behind.

This flow, I think, is essential for us as people of dialogue. Individual dialogues are demanding work. They require intense periods of listening, deep reflection, compassion for the other, and great care with language, among other things. We can’t sustain these wonderful efforts forever. We have to process, give our souls a break, let our preconceptions and the input from the dialogue play together.

How do you know when the flow is shifting? This is where I think listening comes in: listening to one’s own heart, to one’s exhaustion levels, to the tenor of the conversation at that moment, to the situation, to the other. If we develop an ear for these things, we can let the shift happen when it comes, respect its timing, and go with it.

Oh, it helps to listen to loved ones too. With the Facebook business, I ignored the shift for quite a while. Fortunately, one passing comment from my wife woke me up to face what was happening.

I’m sure I will be on Facebook again at some point. If I listen to my heart with enough honesty, I’ll even know when that point is. One can only hope.

Have you ever done a Facebook detox? Did it help? How? Feel free to share.

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?

A Kinda Sorta Dialogue—en Français—at Tim Horton’s

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?

Arnold Abbott and the Surprising Common Ground

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?

How Not to Conduct Civic Engagement

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.)

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.


How Can Civic Infrastructure (Whatever That Is) Help Dialogue?

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.

Introverts, Shoeshines, and Doing Difficult Things (Like Dialogue)

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.