Posts Tagged ‘dialogue’
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.
Sometimes, when we talk less, it’s amazing what we hear.
One highlight of my trip to San Francisco last month (to promote the book) was the chance to take part in “5 White Guys Talk about God,” a panel hosted by psychotherapist, author, and good friend Katy Byrne. (The title was strictly tongue-in-cheek.) When Katy heard I was coming west, she approached four of her clergy friends about holding a freewheeling “God conversation” in a local café. The six of us agreed that, in total, we’d talk for about 25% of the time, and let attendees take the other 75%.
Boy, was that a good call.
The comments from the audience came fast and from all over the map. One college-age church member discussed the active hostility to religion among people in her generation. Several ex-Catholics told us how badly the Church had treated them; several current Catholics traced their love of the faith to their childhoods. We heard from a man who has traveled the world to live with people in myriad faith traditions, and a woman who recently walked over coals for the first time. One fellow told us about the healings—and raisings of the dead—in his church.
It felt miraculous. Mostly, it inspired me to think about hunger—the emotional and existential kinds.
I sensed, for instance, a hunger for things of the spirit. Very few topics can draw 50 people to an indoor space on a luminous Sunday evening, as this one did. Moreover, the participants had clearly lived with and thought deeply about God, or at least the idea of God; I could hear the wisdom in even the most “ordinary” stories.
Take the Catholic who grew up in terror of missing Mass and committing mortal sin—until she realized her oh-so-devout mother never went to Mass. When asked, her mom replied, “Your father works very hard all week long, and he deserves a nice big family meal on Sundays. It’s my job to make that meal for all of you.” (Can we go so far as to call it her vocation?)
I also sensed a hunger for dialogue—and more capacity for doing dialogue than I might have thought. No one yelled. No one disparaged another’s faith. We mostly told stories from our experience and shared the view from our piece of the world. Precisely what you would expect in authentic dialogue.
Most fundamentally, though, I sensed a hunger to be heard. I wonder how much this hunger pervades all of us. We have these fascinating stories that are our stories, our contribution to the world. Many of us are, deep down, bursting to tell them—and they could make a difference in someone’s life if we do. Yet we have fewer and fewer places to tell our stories, thanks to the manic pace of modern life and our excessive individualism and a hundred other factors.
All of these hungers surfaced in one Sonoma café on one night. Seeing them filled, even if in part, was profoundly moving. It was a night that deserves celebration—a small sign of hope in a world that needs it.
Listening reminds me of a pool: just when you think you’ve plumbed its depths, you find more depths to plumb. Two recent encounters with listening brought this home for me.
First, some context. Dialogue only happens when we listen. Listening is not the same as hearing: we might hear any sonic input at any time—ignoring it, giving it fleeting attention, or focusing on it as we see fit—but we listen with a clear mind, an open heart, and our total attention devoted to the other person. That allows us entry, unfiltered, into the other’s way of thinking.
One treasure of contemplative spirituality is that listening becomes a way of approaching all of life—a habit of the heart, if you will. We listen to God, to the flora and fauna of the natural world, to the prevailing culture, to hidden messages, to everything that communicates. Every now and then, this listening stance produces some extraordinary discoveries, such as…
Listening from within another’s point of view. This, to me, is one step beyond listening open-heartedly to another’s perspective; it involves climbing into that perspective and thinking from inside it, the better to grasp its nuances and shake free more wisdom. When asking my Facebook friends about their experiences with Holy Week, I specifically addressed my query to Christians, figuring that people who did not identify as Christian would neither know nor care about the topic. That assumption nearly cut me off from the insights of one of my atheist friends, who showed a remarkable ability to think from within the Christian tradition and meld it into his own thinking. The Public Conversations Project published my article about this experience; feel free to take a look for the details.
Listening to our thoughts before we think them. Late last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing with Justine Willis Toms for a future installment of New Dimensions Radio. (The program is slated to run sometime this summer.) During the interview, in which we quickly established a deep listening connection with each other, she asked me a question about the nature of God, and I responded with my latest thinking. What stunned me, though, were the ideas coming out of my mouth that I hadn’t thought of before. I do not know where these ideas came from, but I had the eye-opening experience of learning from them. The beauty of listening as a habit of the heart is that we are listening to everything, even to ourselves as new insights emerge from us.
Have you had experiences like this—the word magical or miraculous may apply—when listening deeply to another person? Feel free to share them here.
Amid the news reports from Boston last week, a few outlying comments and impressions stood out for me. They didn’t sound like the themes that became dominant as the story unfolded: the evil of terrorism, the fear that it incites, the awe-inspiring heroism of everyday people, the “we are all Boston” solidarity with those who suffer.
A lot has been said and written about those themes, and they deserve the attention. But I don’t want to miss the wisdom in the outliers. Here are some thoughts on one of them:
There is still much we don’t know about the Tsarnaev brothers. But what struck me in these early days was the stubborn refusal of their narrative to fit our usual categories. They committed an act of terrorism but were not Saudi nationals. Their birthplace has spawned terrorism in the past, but they had not lived there for many years. They were fairly well integrated into U.S. society, but their motivations did not match those of other American terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh. They are Muslims, visited jihadist websites, but do not appear connected to al-Qaeda.
As their story unfolds, we might see how they fit into some larger narrative. For now, however, it reminds me of what I do not want to do. I do not want to try stuffing a unique story with unique characters into a prepackaged narrative—like “they’re from Chechnya, so they must be al-Qaeda” or “they practice Islam, so of course they’re violent” or “they’re white, so it must be domestic terrorism.”
This is a crucial lesson for dialogue as well. Our partner in dialogue makes a statement, and it’s tempting to put her in a category. If we hear her out, we might discover that she fits none of our categories, so our categories need an adjustment, if not an overhaul. In the process of adjusting or overhauling them, we get closer to grasping the reality—and the complexity—of the person before us and the issue she raises.
If we don’t hear her out, though, we cut ourselves off from all that. Our categories may even harden, so we are less prepared for the next dialogue.
I was on the receiving end of this dynamic the other day. On Facebook, a friend posted a message that I thought depicted Islam inaccurately. When I raised this, someone else jumped in to ask whether I was apologizing for terrorism. His prepackaged story was clear—Islam = terrorism—a belief he made all too clear with his subsequent comments. If he had lived into the uncertainty, the knowledge that he needed more data to truly understand me, he might have uncovered a much more complex picture of who I am. He might have had to change his thinking: not just about me, but about what I wrote.
Have you had this happen to you? Conversely, have you run across a person or situation that shook up your preconceived notions? What happened? Feel free to share here.
Yes, this really happened. And yes, there’s a lesson in here about dialogue.
According to reporter Scott Waldman of The Times Union, a number of Albany High School students recently went to English class and received a disturbing assignment: imagine that you are a Nazi, and use Nazi propaganda to develop a persuasive essay on why Jews are evil.
If that chilled you to the bone, you’re in good company. It chilled me too. But let’s unpack this a bit more.
For me, a secondary problem is that this type of assignment—the basic structure, not the content—could have been an outstanding exercise in dialogue.
Here’s why. Authentic dialogue calls on us to suspend our own preconceptions, however temporarily, so we can hear the other person unfiltered (or, rather, as unfiltered as we can get). It is a key to approaching others with a clear mind and an open heart.
This assignment takes the clear mind/open heart paradigm one big step further—by asking students to think from within the other’s perspective. In most cases, this is a noble and extraordinary thing. By thinking from within, we honor those who hold that perspective. Often we discover that the other perspective has some validity; we can at least see how a reasonable person might believe it. This can drive us into dialogue with, and open us to compassion for, the people who hold that belief.
That’s in most cases. Thinking from within Nazism is a different beast.
Over the course of human history, certain beliefs and events—the word evil applies here—have scarred our consciousness. Their potential to do further damage persists for many years, often for centuries. As a result, speaking of them with anything but the utmost gravity, without painstaking consideration of their horror and historical context, is delicate at best (as in the case of satire or parody to skewer the belief) and destructive at worst.
This is what made George W. Bush’s error in 2001—using the word crusade to describe the stand against terrorism—so grievous. It’s why I’m trying to expunge the phrase drink the Kool-Aid from my vocabulary: because I spent time studying the tragedy at Jonestown in my college days, and the phrase carries too many evil connotations to be used lightly. It’s what makes this Nazi assignment so problematic and offensive.
I wish the teacher had thought to focus on a different scenario: not skirting controversy, by any means, but giving our collective scars their due. Using a difficult issue on which good-hearted people disagree—like abortion or hydrofracking—could have been thunderously powerful if students had to write in favor of the stance they personally oppose.
Compassion and connection to all people are virtues. We are not required, however, to seriously consider their paradigms if those paradigms have wrought evil on our planet.
What do you think? Where would you draw the line on this assignment? What topics are beyond acceptable, and which within bounds?
I was doing a live radio interview two Saturdays ago (Silver City Meetinghouse on WVBF AM1530 in southeastern Massachusetts; great hosts, fun show) when one of the co-hosts mentioned her work in labor-management relations. She consults with school districts using nontraditional methods of negotiation—specifically, methods that invite these traditional adversaries to work in tandem for a solution that benefits a whole, rather than against each other to get the most possible for their side.
As she described her work, I thought about the difficult position these negotiators must face. I suspect it’s a position many of us have faced, in other contexts.
When negotiators sit across from one another, at least two powerful forces conspire to draw them toward conflict and away from dialogue. First is the long history of adversarial relationship between the two sides: a great deal of hostility has flowed under the bridge over the decades, and mistrust has become instinct.
Even so, a negotiator deeply committed to dialogue might be able to overcome this personal animosity if not for the second force: she is beholden to someone else. Dialogue is not written into her job description; getting the very best agreement for her constituents is. If she dares to try understanding the other side, she risks facing hundreds of people who would accuse her of “selling out our interests.”
Could dialogue have any role in this? Is there any value in a negotiator’s stepping out into a virtual no man’s land to explore the issues together with the other side?
There may be, and it may have to do with what I see as a fundamental difference between negotiation and dialogue. Negotiation is all about compromise, giving up on certain points to get what you want. It is the natural choice for situations like labor-management relations, and of course it can be tremendously effective. The risk of negotiation, however, is that in the process of compromise the parties may never explore the deeper issues that underlie the points of disagreement. In the end, they may hammer out a mutually acceptable pact that addresses the details but none of the underlying issues. This is where dialogue—and its tendency toward exploration, toward mutual understanding—can have value.
And yes, there is no doubt that “rising above the fray” like this can bring a negotiator a lot of flak. It requires a great deal of internal fortitude (and/or external support) to face down the forces of conflict. Yet we desperately need people with that kind of fortitude—not only in the labor-management arena, but in the political sphere, interfaith dialogue, and many other places in the public square.
I think people of faith can play a significant role here, particularly those who have cultivated a deep connection with the Divine. These folks do not have to face the fray alone, because their hearts are full of the conviction that they are not alone. Their radical openness to God—an openness that, I have found, empowers them to let go of vested interests and “us vs. them” thinking—sets them free to initiate dialogue even in ultra-sensitive situations, heedless of the cost.
That’s the internal fortitude part of it. The external support is essential as well: finding allies who can nurture us even as we nurture them. It is much easier to let go of one’s position and deeply engage the other side when we know that people have our back. From a faith perspective, it is that same divine support expressed through the people around us.
So maybe dialogue does have a role to play in negotiating settlements. It certainly has a role to play when longtime adversaries meet to resolve issues in the public square. And the more our hearts and minds can be reoriented toward dialogue, the more readily we can enter the fray.
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.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.” —Exodus 3:11-12a
Next Sunday, I have the privilege of returning to my old home church to give a sermon and then, over lunch, talk about dialogue. Like a good Episcopalian, I started with the prescribed scriptures for that day, and what emerged for me was a message about change. Two aspects of the message were clear right off the bat:
- God asks us to change: i.e., to repent—to leave our less-than-best selves behind and grow into God. Jesus hammers that point repeatedly in the Gospel reading.
- We’re not very good at change. Actually, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that. Just think about what happens to most weight-loss efforts and New Year’s resolutions.
If you’ve visited this space for any length of time, you know how important change is to this effort. As I see it, inner transformation can enable us to dialogue with a clear mind and an open heart. But…we’re not very good at it.
So what do we do?
I think one answer—for people of faith in particular—lies nearly hidden in that exchange between Moses and God. Moses, a shepherd and fugitive from justice, dwelling in an invisible backwater of the world, is suddenly asked to stare down a mighty oppressor and lead an entire nation to freedom. In response, he asks the question most of us would ask: “ME? Seriously? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, bring the Israelites out of Egypt, insist on justice and safety for transgender people, write a book, deliver a message to thousands, [insert impossible thing that God is asking you to do here]?”
The extraordinary thing about God’s response is where it starts. Moses asks a question about himself. But God’s response does not start with Moses; it starts with God. The issue is not “who you are,” it is that “I will be with you.”
For people of faith, at least, this changes the game entirely. We do not have to make the change alone—because we are not alone. Our lives are oriented toward a Reality that holds the power to make inner transformation happen. All we need to do is respond, consistently, day by day.
Powered by that Reality, inner transformation suddenly becomes doable. We have hope that, as people of faith, we can change. And that change can reorient us to engage others—not only in dialogue, but also in love.