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Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

Dialogue and a Deeper Listening

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.

The Boston Bombers and Preconceived Ideas

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.

A Hobbyist’s Model for Framing Dialogue

One of my hobbies revolves around friendly competition. Several times a year, we gather at shows in which judges evaluate our latest exhibits, place them in order of quality, and give out awards like Best in Show.  Inevitably, the exhibitors compare notes about judges too.

This kind of talk is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, good judges help exhibitors get better at their hobby, so it’s important to know whose judging to take with utmost seriousness and whose to, well, take with a grain of salt. On the other hand, as with any small group of human beings, the conversation often turns negative and personal—evaluation as bitch session. “I don’t like the way she handles the exhibits” can degenerate into “she’s a terrible judge” and, in some cases, “I don’t like her.”

In the last couple of days, a thread on this very topic has popped up on Facebook. It is remarkable for its civil, constructive tone—and for that I credit the person who started the topic and how she framed it:

While at the show [last weekend], there was a discussion on judges. Who we liked to show under and who we didn’t and WHY. I personally have judges I will never show under again, and others I will travel way far to be judged by. … So, what I am asking is for everyone to take a moment and share what draws and what repulses you from judges. I am not asking for names, just qualities you are looking for. Perhaps we can all learn from this. And judges, please weigh in with your comments as well!

Dialogue experts talk a lot about framing: how we use language to present a concept so that people can discuss it without feeling threatened.  I see several sterling examples of framing here:

  1. “I am not asking for names, just qualities.” Two words here signal that the conversation will not be about people. By itself, “I am not asking for names” could possibly have led to comments like “Not naming names here, but there’s one left-handed brown-haired judge from a certain part of New York who….” By asking for just qualities, our poster guided future comments into a discussion that any judge could use—without putting this or that judge on the spot.
  2. “Take a moment and share.” Contrast this with the headline I’ve seen in local newspaper columns that print call-in comments: Sound Off! The poster’s language indicates the tone desired in the comments to come—reflective, offered as one personal perspective among many, no authoritative pronouncements or pointless complaining.
  3. “Perhaps we can all learn from this.” The point is not to find fault, but to learn and thereby improve the hobby we all love. The word learn itself reflects a virtue I believe is essential for dialogue: humility—the ability, in this case, to recognize that we do not have all the answers.
  4. “Judges, please weigh in with your comments.”  The invitation extends to both sides of the table. Judges can learn from exhibitors here (and, as a recently licensed judge, I learned a ton) and vice versa.

Good framing often yields good results, and that was certainly the case here. The conversation was long and fruitful, and I’ll bet it results in a better hobby all the way round.

Where have you seen examples of good framing like the one above? Please share your experiences here.

Dialogue When the Sparks Fly

Bad moods and Facebook are generally a lousy mix. We’ve all heard warnings about that. In most cases, I can back away from the keyboard long enough to calm down.

Sunday was different. As you might expect, it left me with some lessons for dialogue.

The dustup started when a Facebook friend—someone who consistently posts intelligent comments—called my hobby “boring.” I instantly turned into a little ball of indignation, and I let her have it. No cussing, mind you, no personal remarks, but a lot of capital letters and exclamation points.

As soon as I hit Send, I felt queasy about it. Expressions of anger do not come easily to me, and I always feel the need to apologize immediately afterward. This time, though, I felt I had a point, so rather than a mea culpa, I sent another, calmer comment explaining myself.

About 15 minutes later, a third person raised the notion that I may have misinterpreted the original comment. My Facebook friend wasn’t calling my hobby boring; she was relaying a popular perception about my hobby.

Whoops. OK, now an apology makes sense.

So, what does this have to do with dialogue? Three things come to mind:

  1. Our raw nerves can surprise us. Yes, I love my hobby, but I had no clue it was a hot button until someone hit it. In the same way, we may set off an angry reaction from someone else when we least expect it. The lesson here for all participants, I think, is to stop, breathe, observe the reaction, and either try to discover the source or set the reaction aside for reflection later. That can help us continue the dialogue by short-circuiting any cycle of hostility that may emerge.
  2. Not every communication is crystal clear. Obviously. We’ve all been cautioned to choose our words carefully when emailing or posting to social media, because people can’t hear tone of voice, or read body language, or even pick up proper context in electronic media. Even when we think we’re crystal clear—and I’m sure my friend thought she was—there’s always the chance of misunderstanding. Being awake to that chance enables us to hold our words lightly and respond thoughtfulness when someone misconstrues our thinking.
  3. Dialogue isn’t always “nice.” Some people see dialogue as a way to dodge conflict, or avoid having convictions, or be otherwise mushy of thinking. Nonsense. In dialogue, we can express ourselves forcefully; we can channel our anger into our words. It is a powerful way to communicate to our dialogue partners that “I care deeply about this.” The trick is to frame our vehemence so our partners understand the context and intensity level from which we’re speaking. A simple introductory statement, such as “Pardon me, I may get emotional about this,” prepares the other people involved and allows them to respond from a place of understanding rather than knee-jerk hostility. Precision of language is essential here. So is the ability, on the receiving end, to stop, breathe, and hear the message behind the anger, rather than respond in kind.

What about you? What other lessons would you have drawn from this conflict? What have you learned from your own dustups with people? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Glorious Internet: Closer to Dialogue or Further Away?

Remember all those long-ago TV ads that trumpeted the vast promise of the Internet to bring us all together? Apparently, quite the opposite is taking place.

So says a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed by Gregory Rodriguez. A senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Rodriguez writes that “despite all the newfangled ways we’ve developed to communicate across all sorts of boundaries, we’re increasingly deciding to talk, tweet and Facebook with folks who are more or less like ourselves.”

Why? Rodriguez quotes a fascinating insight from Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. With the explosion of diversity in today’s world, Bishop writes, people increasingly have to create their own identities. That’s a lot easier when you draw on support from people like you.

I see this as a good thing. In Western culture, at least, we no longer have a social consensus to tell us who we are (or aren’t). Thank God for that, especially since the consensus defined “normal” in very restrictive ways. But as someone with his own eccentric identity, I have seen how isolating the resultant “who am I?” quest can be. Support from like-minded people is a breath of fresh air, and the Internet has made it easier to find them.

The problem is not that we hang out with like-minded people. The problem comes when we only hang out with like-minded people (or only read their like-minded thinking).

By doing that, we drastically limit the number of worldviews we encounter. Our views can easily become more rigid and dogmatic. We might think the answers to problems are simple when they’re not. Moreover, we start to believe things about people not of our worldview—and those things are often inaccurate.

That may be why, for instance, some LGBT people see all evangelical Christians as homophobic, or why some Anglos see all Mexicans as unpatriotic, or why some Americans fear all Muslims as potential terrorists.  And it makes dialogue difficult.

But what if we expanded the spectrum of places we hang out online? It can do wonders for clearing away preconceptions. As our exploration unfolds, we may realize that “all people in x group” don’t have the same perspective, because this blogger in x group has a different perspective. More often than not, we discover that her perspective is well thought out. Maybe we can find ways to at least respect those opinions, if not actually bridge our divides.

Rodriguez quotes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the value of spending time with “them” and their perspectives. To help reach consensus as an Arizona legislator, she’d invite the warring sides over to her house for home-cooked Mexican food and beer. They’d sit around and shoot the bull. In time, they became friends. This can happen virtually too (OK, minus the edibles).

Will this kind of crossover solve all our problems? Of course not. Differences in opinion and debates over policy will never go away, and neither should they: they can contribute to the forging of better solutions. But we can’t even begin to solve our problems if we’re not talking. And we can’t talk productively unless we see and hear others, especially our “adversaries,” for who they really are. If that means reading MoveOn.org as well as nationalreview.com, or The Wall Street Journal as well as The New York Times, then that’s what we have to do.

Facebook, Dialogue, and the Big Idea

Is Facebook good for working out ideas in dialogue or conversation? I’m thinking yes and no.

Yes: Facebook’s immediacy—the “have a thought/express a thought” dynamic—is great for setting the crowd mind loose on a half-formed idea. Let’s say I have a vaguely formed thought about parenting, or the federal budget deficit, or science and faith, and I want to develop it. In the spirit of “two heads are better than one,” I put it out there and let people express what they think. They build on one another’s thoughts, mix and match good insights, and voila! The idea gets better and more developed.

No: Half-formed ideas are quirky things. Some are perfect for Facebook as described above. Others, though, need time and, to use a gardening term, shade to reach full flower. The best place for these seedling insights is safe within the human brain, where they can float around, take shape, and combine with other ideas to form something bigger.

Any writer can tell you about the seedling insight. It may come in the form of a big theme for a book, a character trait in a novel, or the barest whisper of an association for a poem. It’s the sort of thing that could, if exposed too early or to the wrong people, get picked to death. Its originator can easily lose confidence, and a potentially good idea withers on the vine.

What determines how much you share? Some of it may have to do with the thought’s novelty. Fresh ideas are always welcome for kicking around, but if it’s too fresh or unusual, it may scare people too much to generate give-and-take on a casual site like Facebook. Personality and sensitivity play a big role too. The closer to one’s heart the thought is, the more time it needs to germinate internally. The more private I am as a person, the less personal information I’ll want to share. So an introvert could post something about mental health and public policy for reactions, but he probably won’t work through his own issues there. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

It’s curious that different dialogue technologies address ideas in different ways. Conversation Cafés, for instance, enable the free flow of any and every idea within certain parameters. Clearness Committees, on the other hand, provide hours of silence and reflective listening to allow one’s deepest thoughts to emerge.

What do you think? Do you ever use Facebook to generate dialogue, or even to run ideas past people? If so, how’s it worked for you? If not, would you ever use it? Why or why not?