As a culture, we easily fall into “power based” patterns in our discussions. Don’t believe me? Try filling in the blanks in this simple test:
- “I’m right and you’re____.”
- “It’s my way or the _____.”
- “I’m going to talk and you’re going to sit there and ____.”
- “You’re with us or _____.”
The ultimate question underlying all of these phrases is of course, “who is the winner, and who is the loser”? No-one wants to be the loser.
These power-based patterns occur in subtler forms: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “That is just stupid.” “Everyone knows …” “Yes, but …” Underlying all of these statements is the “right/wrong, winner/loser” dynamic. And that dynamic, in whatever form it is used, erodes trust; invokes negative emotions like disgust, anger and fear; and invites push-back. This is the dynamic behind our increasing partisanship, and inability to talk through difficult issues even with (or especially with) friends and family.
For these reasons, consciously avoiding “power-based” framing is a first step in talking through a difficult issue. The dialogue patterns of listening, reflecting, sharing, and inviting invoke very different responses than the “patterns of power.” This is because they accept the other person’s thoughts and feelings as sincerely offered and avoid the “winner-loser” dynamic.
Here’s an example of how that works in practice: Recently at a wedding, I joined a conversation between a younger relative (liberal) and an older family friend (conservative) which quickly became strained. The relative had observed that political decisions were often hypocritical, referencing conservative politicians who sought storm aid for their states having previously opposed such aid for New York City in the wake of a hurricane. The friend responded that the denial of aid was justified “because no US citizens currently live in NYC”.
This was a surprising assertion to me because much of my family (all native-born US citizens!) live in NYC. However, I could see that both were upset and the discussion was likely to get out of hand if I approached it as a question of “right or wrong”. So I said to the family friend, “I can tell this issue is very important to you” (acknowledgement), and “I am curious where you got that information, could you tell me more?” (invitation). That prompted him to talk about a news station he watched, and as we continued to listen, his concerns with over-reliance on government spending and immigration. I then said “Sometimes it’s hard to know what information to rely on” (acceptance), “although your statement surprised me because much of my family lives in NYC” (sharing).
This exchange in turn led to a question of how my family fared in the hurricane, and then to a discussion of where he had been raised, why he had left, and how reliance on government welfare had undercut his family and the community he once lived in. During this discussion, the relative was able, in a low-key way, to share information on how statistics were often mis-used, common assumptions that research had proved wrong regarding net givers and takers in various states, and other factual information, without any push-back. We ultimately all agreed that if “ordinary Americans” had more opportunities to sit down and just talk, much could be learned and many problems could be solved. The conversation ended on a friendly tone, and when the friend saw both me and the relative at another wedding several weeks later, he greeted us warmly.
We need not agree on facts and policies or even values to communicate with one another. We do, however, have to do something more than assert our own point of view. We have to have a desire to understand and to connect. The compassion for, and interest in others that underlie effective dialogue help us to connect.