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Archive for the ‘Practical Steps Toward Dialogue’ Category

How Do You Come to Your Opinions?

Think of a controversial issue in the news. More likely than not, you’ve already formed opinions about it.

How did you come to those opinions?

The question keeps arising for me this month, thanks to conversations about the complex of issues surrounding violence, guns, terrorism, and Islam. Several of my “conversation partners” are people with whom I vehemently disagree; in a couple of cases their opinions are repugnant to me. If I had encountered their thoughts in passing—in a river of Facebook comments, in a tweet, in a casual remark—I might have dismissed them out of hand.

With one fellow in particular, however—an ardent anti-immigrationist who even questions the value of diversity for human community—the conversation has taken a different turn. The more he explains about his belief, the more I see how much thought he has put into it. He makes connections I never would have considered. (Who sees rigid controls on immigration as a justice issue for low-income people? He does.) He cites research. Some of his language implies that personal circumstances might fuel his ideas.

By instinct, I am a complete fruitcake on immigration. I think we should let ‘em all in. Everybody. Carte blanche. No exceptions. Or at least that should be our starting point. In that context, the conversation we’ve had has had a substantial effect. No, I am not persuaded to convert to this fellow’s opinions. But the dialogue with him has persuaded me that my conviction needs work. Perhaps a lot of work.

Seeing how he came to his opinions made the difference.

So what’s the takeaway here? Allow me to come at it in a roundabout way. It has to do, in a sense, with the power of stories.

The dialogue field is big on storytelling. When people tell their stories, we see their humanity. We can empathize with them. Storytelling takes dialogue away from the abstractions that dominate our media landscape and pushes it into context and nuance. We can start to see, in many cases, how a reasonable person might just arrive at the opinion that gives us the shivers.

What I’m wondering is whether how did you come to your opinions?—which is an invitation to tell another type of story—may also allow us to filter out the media noise.

Here’s what I mean. If I express an opinion that sounds ripped from the media headlines, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it challenges me to probe deeper, to form and own an opinion that is more authentically mine. If I express an opinion with greater depth, your question how did you come to your opinion? encourages me to reveal that depth and (I hope) inspire you to reflect on it and respond in kind. If I’ve based my opinions on sources you find questionable, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it allows us to go well beyond the issue at hand and into deeper questions of media and knowledge and trust.

Whatever the case, we begin to enter a dialogue and reflection that exposes our opinions to the thinking of our dialogue partner. That in turn can shape our opinions and, hopefully, bring them closer to the truth, or the heart of the matter. At the same time, we forge the type of connections that dialogue is famous for making.

Best of all, that simple question opens a door for us to leave those scripted catchphrases and simplistic media headlines far behind. We’re liberated from the “box” of those sound bites, which so often set the parameters of debate in the public square. Instead, the question moves us outside the box, and we van hear and think and feel for ourselves.

It might even be a good question for self-reflection. How do you come to your opinions? And how might this question help you make progress with that person who makes your blood boil?

 

 

 

Last Weekend’s Gun Dialogue

Several days after our latest experiment in gun dialogue, I find myself both more hopeful and less hopeful. Fortunately, more hopeful is winning.

Last week I posed a few basic ideas that, just maybe, every person on every side of the gun debate could agree on. If we could agree, we’d have some common ground, which often inspires at least the tolerance—and sometimes the empathy—required to explore thornier issues.

The ensuing dialogue (mostly on my Facebook feed) was robust, rarely on topic, and wildly fruitful. Here are some things that I heard, thought, was surprised by, etc.:

People listened to each other. There was some “Yes I hear you but [more of my position here]” going on—which doesn’t qualify as listening—but many folks at least tried to take in the views from commenters on the other side.

The resulting exchanges were enlightening. At one point, two folks debated the definition of militia (a key word in the Second Amendment) and what relevance it might have for today’s United States. I honestly had never considered that issue in any depth.

At another point, a gun owner objected to last week’s attempts at legislation (defeated in the Senate) to inhibit sales of guns to people on government terrorist watch lists. Her objection was that the criteria for inclusion on these watch lists is not transparent. Another commenter, who favored the legislation, suggested adding a paragraph to make the criteria transparent. If these two folks could figure out a solution across their very significant divides, why couldn’t the Senate?

There is a deep, widespread sense of fear among many people in the U.S. Millions of Americans believe that their government wants to confiscate their guns. Millions of Americans are now afraid of Muslims. It is very tempting, for those of us who gravitate toward the center or left of the political spectrum, to dismiss these leanings out of hand. I suggest we sit with them a while, listen to them more intently, see how we might address them.

This is not—not—to condone xenophobia. In the midst of the Facebook dialogue, I actually had to delete a post that advocated “banning Muslims” instead of “banning guns.” I will not have my Facebook feed associated with hatred.

But maybe there’s a distinction between fear and hatred that’s worth examining. I wonder if we can make space for people to explore and express their fears, groundless or not, while confronting the all-too-easy transition from fear to hostility to hatred. I wonder if that space might actually prevent the transition from occurring.

The problem of mass violence is much, much deeper than I’d thought. The more I read on this issue, the more I wonder whether any serious approach to reducing the number of mass shootings has to involve rethinking our society on a profound level. Maybe we have to, for instance, look at our very American propensity to violence. Maybe we have to consider how our long history of individualism has eroded the very community that might deter prospective shooters. Perhaps we have to ask why so many people feel so deeply alienated. And while I hate to sound grim, I don’t think U.S. society—or any society—is up to the task. Still…

Maybe we can take steps anyway. God bless my friends: when I expressed my despair in the above paragraph, they were quick to remind me of some very basic truths. We can’t change society, but we can change ourselves. Love is the answer. (Sound simplistic? If you’ve ever tried to live it, you know it’s not.) Maybe our task now is to imagine the baby steps we can take toward a more peaceful world.

This was, of course, one conversation on one blog/Facebook feed at one point in time. But if our little agglomeration of people can have this conversation, why not others? Why not people with the power to take the baby steps, and larger ones too? Why not?

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.

 

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.)