Navigating DIfficult Dialogues: Phrasing Is Key

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.




Resources For Moving Forward And Best Wishes For The New Year

To peace-makers everywhere, we extend our best wishes for the new year.

Here also, following up on our previous posts about Ferguson, MO, are some additional resources that may be of use to those who looking for ways to address, and ultimately heal, the racial divides in our community.

John Backman wrote an excellent summary of points to think about when building a dialogue. One of the questions he raised was “how to make room for clumsy questions?”   There are many people of goodwill, who would like to bridge the divides, but who are also either afraid of offending, unintentionally offensive, fearful of emotion, hurting and in need of support and understanding, and untutored in the ways of helping each other through a difficult exchange.  How can we help structure a process that both allows diverse people to  connect and supports and cares for them at the same time?

Approaches that we have found helpful in past interfaith dialogues  involving issues of both faith and race include the following:

+ Start With Listening Only. Rather than starting with an interactive dialogue of a general issue, or a problem to be solved, start with something like listening circles.  Listening is key to both healing and understanding. Listening circles are  structured to focus the participants on simply listening and reflecting on what was heard. Because participants know they won’t be debated or questioned, they often open up far more than they would in a traditional discussion.  Feedback like “I was surprised by what I was willing to share” and “it was so healing to be heard” is not uncommon. This type of experience is more likely to encourage participants to venture into a broader dialogue at another time with the same people or at least organized by the same group. You can download a facilitator’s guide to listening circles here.

+Invite, and Provide Tools For, Reflection. Before starting listening circles or another form of dialogue, provide a short program about listening, the importance of being truly heard, and the need to listen beyond the emotions that may surface or the information that may be shared. Our “conflict in a box” tool can be used to orient a group on how easy it is for conflict to form, and on the importance of both questioning (and checking) one’s own immediate reactions and impulses, and assuming goodwill.  You can also provide a worksheet during or after this program and and ask people to record questions or thoughts as they listen. Or you can provide worksheets that help participants think about different perspectives and experiences in advance.

+ Use Question Cards.  However you structure your dialogue, invite participants to put questions on index cards that a facilitator can group and ask, sometimes in more diplomatic terms than what is written.

+Demonstrate Positive Dialogue.  Consider starting a session with a panel of people that reflect the diversity of the audience and are skilled at difficult dialogue. Listening to panel of community leaders talk in a civil, respective, and substantial way with each other can very positively influence the following dialogue of the audience. This panel can also, following a community dialogue, help to answer questions from question cards or talk about what they observed and encourage ongoing dialogue.  If you don’t have a panel, you might start with a video, like this one on “themification“. Again, providing a related worksheet that helps promote reflection before beginning the group dialogue is helpful.

Change takes time and perseverance. Healing does as well, and also requires care and compassion.  Your work does make a difference, and 2015 will be a better year as a result of the dialogues you start.  We wish you well.

Ferguson: Can We Move Forward? Will We?

Ferguson, MO is not unique.  Although Ferguson may be the site of the most recent flare-up, other communities have experienced similar unrest in the past, and other communities are at risk for the future. Many of our communities experience divides and inequities similar to those in the Saint Louis metropolitan area.  Our communities, and our country, need to address these issues.

Will we?  These are hard issues.  It’s easier to say “they need to fix their problems in St. Louis” than to look at what needs to be fixed in our own communities.  Or to decry the violence and ignore the inequities that exist and the lack of hope that many feel.

Martha McCoy from Everyday Democracy once observed that the that “lack of civility is a symptom of a structural problem that requires a structural remedy.”  Part of that structural problem is our unwillingness to listen  to those whose experiences differ from our own.  Another is the limited opportunities for many citizens to be heard.  As we have noted before, all conversations occur at three levels, information, emotion, and identity.  When difference or conflict is strongly rooted in the lower levels, emotions are easily inflamed and decisions aren’t always made in rational way.

We can see all three levels of conflict at work in Ferguson – Info: what exactly happened when Michael Brown was shot?  Emotion: sadness, anger, fear are all present and being expressed.  Identity:  what does it mean to be “American”? to be a community? to have hope for a future? to “follow the law”? to care for one another? to help one another?  who are our fellow citizens?  When we don’t have good ways to discuss and resolve issues like this  in our communities or in our country, the hurt and distrust build and get loaded onto other issues, and often explode in unpredictable ways. We need more direct, and more frequent, dialogue over values, and identity, and community, and justice.

All people need real opportunities to be heard, to address the difficult issues that affect their lives, and to know that their thoughts and concerns — their very existence — matter to others and will be taken into account when decisions are made by those who allocate our resources and write or enforce our laws.  Building those opportunities is as much, if not more, the work of citizens as of our elected leaders.   If you are a member of a church community, a service group, or other network, start a dialogue about what troubles you and what can be changed.  You can find many resources here.  Share your vision of what could be if our divides were bridged. Raise the question of what we collectively lose when those divides are ignored. When leaders promise action, ask from the outset how progress will be evaluated and reported.  Evaluations should be honest, transparent, and rigorous, if we are to learn and grow together. If leaders ask for input, sign-up and participate.  Much has been asked of the Commission appointed by Jay Nixon to address many of the inequities in the St. Louis region.  Whether real change occurs depends on citizens watching, listening, sharing, and being willing to work together.

I frequently end trainings with a quote from Admiral Hyman Rickover: “Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.”  In addressing the events in Ferguson, President Obama has at various points asked us to  “listen and not just shout”, to “understand not just divide”, and to lift up the kinds of “constructive dialogue” that can lead to “real progress”. Engaging in serious dialogue with those we don’t know or trust takes courage, patience, and practice.  It also is the only way that builds community and creates real and sustainable changes.

We can do this.  If we are willing.

“America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity.  Take a chance won’t you?  Knock down the fences which divide.”  –Justice Thurgood Marshall

Community and Conflict: Prevention and Healing – An Interview with Bill Johnson for ABA Mediation Week

It’s ABA Mediation Week 2014, and the theme for this year is “Stories Mediators Tell:  From Rookie to Veteran – Exploring the Spectrum of Mediation”.  We are excited to be able as part of Mediation Week to share this interview with Bill Johnson who is a veteran at helping communities through conflict.  Bill was first trained as a mediator in 1985, and he incorporated that training into his work as the President and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester New York (1972-1993), and as the 64th Mayor of Rochester (1994-2005).  After several additional years (2006-2013) as the Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Urban Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology, he is heading a consulting firm focused on “bridging differences to build strong communities” — Strategic Community Intervention LLC.  If you are concerned about distrust and divides within our communities, listen to the following interview and find out what can be done to heal those divides, even after events like those that recently occurred in Ferguson, MO.  You can also download a summary of Bill’s thoughts and experiences here: SCI –Police and Communities Collaboration, 10-14.

Interview With Bill Johnson of SCI

Note: This video was filmed using VTC Stream.

Building A New Dialogue: Reflecting On Ferguson, MO


Listening is at the heart of any productive effort to resolve conflict. At times, it’s the only action that can help people move forward. Real listening is hard work. It requires adequate time and space.  It’s not the kind of “listening” that we often observe in public disputes. It’s not the kind of “listening” that takes words out of context and fits them into an alternative narrative of who is right and who is wrong. Nor is it “listening” in order to pull out components of a possible “solution” that can then be offered to “stop” or “settle” the conflict. It’s not the “listening” that takes place in scheduled forums where people are allowed to “have their say” within time limits and with no assurance – or even real expectation – that what they say will be taken into account as future decisions are made. All of these alternative forms of “listening” — which are frequently evident in public disputes — breed cynicism rather than hope.

Genuine listening requires an active willingness to put aside our own thoughts and opinions as we listen, so that we can hear and consider experiences and perspectives different from our own.  It requires some sense of humility, interdependence, and a desire to think through what the next step might be, together. It’s the kind of listening that President Obama was inviting when he stated that building trust between communities and citizens and police would “require Americans to listen and not just shout. . . That’s how we are going to move forward together, by trying to unite each other and understand each other not simply divide ourselves from one another”. Taking the time to listen this way is worth the effort. Through listening we learn more about ourselves and each other, and that learning feeds real change.

Others involved or observing the recent unrest in Ferguson also emphasized this kind of listening. The St. Louis Post Dispatch called for dialogue involving “some introspection that allows us to both recognize and learn from our region’s still strong racial divide. . .” Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson recognized both the despair that lay behind signs reading “I am a man” and “Black lives matter,” and that these signs represented an invitation to connect, to acknowledge the people behind them, and to genuinely listen to what they had to say.

As columnist E J Dionne  stated,  “. . . how we discuss and debate the events in Ferguson really matters.”  This is because we need to “step outside the usual boundaries of our discord” if we are going to rebuild trust within our communities. The very act of genuine listening stretches those boundaries and changes how we think.  How we define “community” is determined in part by who we are willing to invite into our conversation – – who we are willing to offer a listening ear to, and thus recognize as inextricably related to us. Genuine listening is the hard work of democracy, and it is the responsibility of both citizens and those in appointed or elected positions.

Before we can find “solutions” or “move on” from a deeply rooted conflict that erupts in our community, we need to create safe spaces for listening and sharing.  This includes a mix of informal processes like listening circles or conversation cafes hosted by individuals, churches, or civic groups, and formal processes that are supported with a commitment from those in power to act, and act collaboratively, on what is heard. And then we need to actually listen to each other, share, and build on what we have learned. Like tributaries to the Mississippi, it takes many listening conversations, small and large, and flowing together, to build the trust that sustains community.

Hate, Terror, and The Power To Heal

After the twin towers fell 13 years ago, my then 13 year old daughter struggled to understand the world she was growing into.  Ultimately she wrote a poem.  That poem began with a sense of helplessness:

I do not hold in my hand the power to change
 what happened on September 11.
I cannot turn back the hands of time,
and stop the towers from falling,
or the people from dying.
I cannot stop

It ended though with hope. The final stanza read as follows:

Some people might say I don’t have the power
to do anything, but they are wrong.
I hold in my hand the power to make a difference.
I can love when others hate.
I can lend a helping hand when it is needed.
Even a small gesture can mean a lot to another.
I have the power to make a difference,
and I hold this power in my hands, heart and mind.

And she was right. We each have the power to fight hate, often in seemingly small ways, but ones that over time can have a collective impact. As individuals we can work to improve our skills for listening, understanding, and productive dialogue.  As citizens we can recognize that too much partisanship is poisonous, and set boundaries both for ourselves and for our elected officials.  When we see patterns of hate developing in our private and public communications, we can act to disrupt those and instead build narratives that strengthen our sense of community. By working together to understand our diverse experiences and perspectives, we can make wiser decisions.

Yes this is idealistic.  We could instead give in to cynicism and despair, allowing the spores of  injustice and hate to grow.  Or we can hold onto our faith that the world can be a better place, and do what we can. It is not impossible for individuals and even nations to change, even though progress may be slow.

So persevere.   Speak-up with courage and compassion, find and encourage others who seek a more peaceful world, forgive where you can, and extend a welcoming hand to those who are different from you.  Dialogue can make a difference and we urge you to build dialogues where-ever you can.