Archive for the ‘Practical Steps Toward Dialogue’ Category
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.
Last month I wrote about thinking from within someone else’s perspective. This, from my view, is the next step beyond deep, open-hearted listening in dialogue: it shows the highest respect for others by actively engaging their values and beliefs. In other words, we get inside their heads to understand and empathize.
To get to this place, I have used what I’m calling a “glimpse of empathy.” Let’s say my dialogue partner is trying to communicate the emotional impact of an issue that’s important to her. I don’t feel that way about that issue. But I have felt that way—in another context, perhaps at another level of intensity—somewhere else. Visiting that emotional space within me gives me a tiny glimpse of what she must be feeling. That glimpse enables me to empathize.
An example may help. Recently I jumped into an extraordinary online conversation that touched on living as a member of a historically oppressed group, particularly women and people of color. As a white man, I can listen deeply and open-heartedly to the experience of people in these groups, but it is impossible for me to fully grasp, to the depths of my soul, what that experience must be like.
Not long after, someone asked me about the experience of living as a more or less moderate-progressive Episcopalian in a ruggedly conservative diocese. It is difficult and sometimes painful. I have attended diocesan conventions knowing that none of the resolutions dear to my heart would be passed. I have been told—respectfully—that I cannot lead a workshop because I am not conservative. My chances of holding a diocesan office and contributing on that level are zero. While I’ve built some satisfying relationships at convention, I feel a profound sense of otherness, of not belonging.
I wondered whether this—in some very small, very limited way—was what oppression felt like. That was my glimpse of empathy.
Now allow me to admit something. I’m not sure about this glimpse-of-empathy business. And I’d like to hear your thoughts.
On the one hand, glimpses of empathy should be handled with extraordinary care. I should never assume that, just because I’ve felt excluded at a diocesan convention, I “know what it’s like to be oppressed” as a woman or a person of color. I will never “know what it’s like”—the fear and pervasiveness and powerlessness of oppression.
Moreover, I wouldn’t want to communicate anything approaching “I know what it’s like” to my dialogue partner. She would likely take it as arrogance, and rightly so. The dialogue would suffer and perhaps break down.
On the other hand, glimpses of empathy have the potential to be extraordinarily powerful in advancing both dialogue and solidarity. If we can find some emotional/experiential foothold within ourselves to begin to identify with others—however small that foothold is—we can appreciate their experience and their mindsets from within ourselves. In doing so, we build a bond that could be very difficult to break. Our perspective on the world opens wider. Every time that happens, the capacity for opening still wider, for empathizing with still more people, grows.
Perhaps we can even put this glimpse of empathy before our dialogue partner for verification. It would require humility: not “I know what it’s like” but rather “I’ve had this experience. It’s not even close to what you’ve experienced, but I wonder if it can help me start empathizing with what you’re saying. What do you think?”
We can never “know what it’s like.” We can begin to get a tiny glimpse of what it’s like. I think this glimpse of empathy can help us do so. What do you think?
You may have seen this on the news. Would you like to join me in an online dialogue about it?
Yesterday, in hosting the day-long National Conference on Mental Health, the White House advanced its multi-pronged initiative to raise awareness of—and remove the stigma from—mental illness. The initiative includes, among other elements, a new website (mentalhealth.gov) that points to resources for people with mental illness and shares success stories.
There’s also a dialogue going on. That’s where you and I come in.
Creating Community Solutions is a series of events around the U.S. that will allow people to engage in discussion and action on mental health issues. Part of this dialogue is taking place online now. I’m helping to moderate the conversation in which people share their experiences with mental health.
Already we’ve had people share some powerful stories about mental illness. We’ve heard one woman’s lessons learned from wrestling with bipolar disorder, the challenges for students facing their first days of college, and the tale of an RN that showed an eighth-grade class the link between mental illness and homelessness.
You may have something to say about mental health. If you do, I would love to hear your voice in these conversations. Start by registering for The Civic Commons website (the host for this and many other conversations) and then come on over to http://theciviccommons.com/issues/mental-health-initiative.
For me, this is personal: I’ve wrestled with mental health issues all my adult life, so the chance to move this dialogue forward is near and dear to my heart. Do feel free to join me there.
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?
A while back, I posted this question, invited you to respond, and told you I’d share how I answered it. (My apologies to anyone who was waiting eagerly. No excuses; life simply got in the way.)
I am here now to tell you that I answered it wrong.
For some reason, the question hit an emotional trigger with me. I could feel myself seethe a bit as I called the statement like this “emotional blackmail” and suggested that the questioner just let the person leave. Yikes. Down, boy.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. Some people do use this tactic as emotional blackmail. But many others come to “I’m leaving” from an entirely different place.
Often that place involves deeply held convictions. People on both sides of the debate over same-sex marriage may find themselves in worship communities that do not support them. A business leader may see her organization headed in one direction and her heart (or her calling) in another. A woman who is committed to raising children suddenly discovers that her life partner has decided he doesn’t want them. People in situations like these, I think, do well by themselves and others by being clear and upfront: “If we go in this direction, I’ll have no choice but to leave.”
If you’re on the receiving end of that statement, however, what do you do?
The better angels of my nature suggest the use of “gentle questions”: inquiries that empower the person to tell her story, explain the nuances behind her convictions, and explore next steps—all asked with honor and reverence for her integrity. These questions should carry the sense of “Wow. That’s fascinating. Tell me how you got there”: questions like what in your life brought you to that idea? What has made it so fundamental to you? How have you been able to live with the tension until now?
The ideal situation—and this is the hardest part—is to ask the questions with the other’s welfare uppermost in one’s mind and heart. In some cases, like the couple with fundamental differences about children, this may be well nigh impossible. In others, though, there’s a temptation to hold on to that person for personal or organizational reasons: the church needs your leadership and spiritual depth, the organization can’t go forward without you.
This, I think, is part of the value of dialogue as a habit of the heart: the inner transformation that we do in the “work of the soul” allows us to relax our grip on these people and their contributions.
It’s possible that the conversation may turn up a third path—a way in which the person can maintain her integrity and yet continue to live into the situation. Wonderful. The mistake, however, is to try steering the conversation that way.
Does all this make sense to you? How would you approach it differently? Please let me know, either here or on Facebook. I’d love to hear from you.
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.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time…well, first of all, thank you. I am grateful that you’re willing to hang in and explore dialogue with me.
Second, you know that I periodically go missing when the demands of the book and the full-time job keep me away. The last couple of weeks—in which I’ve prepared for speaking engagements, launched a simple e-newsletter for subscribers to this blog, etc.—have become one of those “periodicallys.” I offer my apologies, even as I try to accept that this appears to be the way my life goes.
However, I did write something for the blog—indirectly—and I want to share it with you. The Public Conversations Project, which has designed and facilitated some of the most remarkable dialogues of the past 20-plus years, published my article on slowing down the rush to decision making in the wake of the Newtown shootings. In a way, it’s a complement to another article I posted here a while back: “A Place for Silence in the Face of Horror.” So please take a look at the Public Conversations Project post. I’d love to hear what you think.
Does this ever happen to you? You get involved in a new endeavor—a different line of work, an unusual hobby, a new practice in your faith tradition, whatever. You read about it, talk to people who’ve done it for years, attend conferences, email the “gurus” in the field, etc. After a while, you start hearing the same information over and over. So now you figure you’ve heard the basic parameters or, in the parlance of college-level courses, the 101.
Then you get deeper in—and you find that a lot of the 101 doesn’t work, or isn’t even accurate. You start craving 201.
I noticed this while seeking a publisher for my book. According to the 101, to get your book published you need an agent. To get an agent you need to send out queries and proposals. You will be rejected 99% of the time. But sales do happen. What you need, more than anything else—beyond the ability to write compellingly and (for nonfiction) a built-in audience—is perseverance.
I did this for quite a while and got nowhere. At some point, I reevaluated the parameters of my writing: my calling to write books, my goals in light of that calling, my age, my financial and career situation, etc., etc. Right around this time, an author who had read my Huffington Post blog offered to introduce me directly to her publisher, SkyLight Paths Publishing. The result has been a delightful author-publisher relationship that breaks many rules of the 101—but has worked very well for me.
What does this have to do with dialogue? The answer, for me, lies in the lessons I learned:
- Push beyond the 101. For a great example, consider the current controversy over gun ownership. The 101, in this case, consists of the clichés and well-worn arguments that the various “sides” reiterate whenever the issue arises. But between “there is no reason whatever to own an assault rifle” and “guns don’t shoot people, people do,” there is a vast spectrum of nuance and complexity that an authentic dialogue could reveal. To reach across divides, to arrive together at a way forward, we must explore that spectrum. In the process, we will gain a clear-eyed, deeper view of where the 101 is correct—and where it’s not.
- Talk to someone else. After getting nowhere with the 101, I talked with some authors who, I knew, had taken a dramatically different path. Their wisdom expanded my understanding of book publishing in a way I could not have imagined otherwise. To take this back to guns: how many advocates of stringent gun control have talked to residents of rural areas in which self-defense is the only viable option in the face of crime? How many gun owners have heard the stories of those whose lives have been devastated by gun violence?
- Refine the questions. Maybe, when faced with the 101, I should have asked questions like How much perseverance is enough? How much audience do you need for what kind of book? What if I want to do this some other way? Deeper dialogues, I suspect, come from deeper questions.
Have you had experiences like these—where it seemed impossible to break through the 101, but only the wisdom at the 201 level would satisfy? What did these experiences teach you? Please feel free to share here.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song on alien soil?” —Psalm 137:4
This haunting question—asked by the psalmist after the people of Israel had been swept into captivity, hundreds of miles from home—formed the theme of an address by the Bishop of Central New York, Gladstone (Skip) Adams, to the annual meeting of Albany Via Media (AVM) this past Saturday.
But it was a different question, asked immediately after the address, that revealed another potential way into dialogue across divides.
Alas, there are divides aplenty around these parts. AVM describes itself as “Episcopalians striving for a middle way of diversity and tolerance in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.” I think of AVM as the loyal but progressive opposition in a conservative diocese. This, as you might expect, carries with it a great deal of tension and occasional rancor on every side.
On Saturday, Bishop Skip addressed the psalmist’s quote on several levels in a talk that was remarkable for its depth of thought and spirit. Then, during the Q&A, one priest noted that the “other (conservative) side” uses the exact same verse from the Psalms to mean something entirely different: how to be faithful to God in a rapidly secularizing society—of which many conservatives consider AVM to be a part.
That would seem to be a conversation stopper right there. How can we talk with one another when we can’t even agree on language?
But maybe it can be a conversation opener—if we use the language difference to probe gently for specific meanings.
Let’s say I fall into a dialogue with a conservative in the diocese, and she quotes that verse. What happens if I say something like “I love that verse, and I’m curious: when you refer to ‘alien soil,’ what are you thinking of? What does that phrase mean to you?”
I may not like what I hear in return, but the question opens an opportunity for me to understand my dialogue partner on a deeper level. Moreover, asking the question can prompt a dialogic question in return: “Why, what do you think of when you read ‘alien soil’?” This gives me the encouragement to share my thoughts in a nonthreatening way.
Several good things can happen from there. We might, for instance, discover how much common ground we share. We might also see how our respective viewpoints can inform and even change each other. For instance, I share my conservative colleagues’ concern about the secularizing of society, but I know very well that AVM members are not part of that problem. This kind of mutual questioning enables me to share that. Perhaps it helps my dialogue partner dispense with stereotypes about the “other side.”
And maybe, because we now see each other more clearly, the next conversation becomes easier, we go deeper, and our bond across divides grows stronger.
What about you? Have you noticed a word or phrase that means something different on the “other side”? What happens if you ask someone who uses it to explain its meaning?