Tag Archives: communication

Reach Out, Listen, and Talk

In both classes and casual conversations, people are asking, How did we get here? How will this end?

Some feel despair, some see an opportunity to address long-standing issues in our democracy. All hope for a better future for their children.

Those who despair decry the harsh partisanship of our politics and the confusing overwhelm of information that is pushed at us from every turn. They ask how can the average citizen be heard? How can we change? Where might we go?

And in all these conversations people are looking at how to bring our political and economic lives into line with the needs of people – how to build a more caring economy, a more compassionate culture, a wiser democracy.

The pandemic has revealed many weaknesses in our culture, economy, and political infrastructure, which developed over many years.  And it is providing an opportunity, should we choose to use it, to shape our futures through dialogue.

So now is the time to reach out and talk with others, even if — especially if — those are difficult conversations. And by talking we don’t mean talking at.  Instead we need to be talking with others in ways that acknowledge our concern, care, and interdependence.  None of us has all of the answers, and for better or worse, our futures are intertwined.

So let’s make it for better.  Reach out and connect with your family, friends and neighbors. Hear their fears, share yours, generate new ideas together, and engage others. Build a dialogue that has the potential to move us forward.

Speaking Up.

Its been a difficult few weeks in American politics. Are you concerned that racism, hate, mendacity, and hyper-partisanship are dominating our national discourse?

As citizens we have more power to shape the national discourse than we might think. Here’s what you can do:

Recognize the patterns of hate and respond with Stories of Wisdom. Ask your elected representatives to avoid the former and encourage and support them when they too have the courage to speak of interdependence or to focus on the common good.

Call out distortion and deflection, and avoid falling into these habits yourself.

Rather than simply reacting to or throwing out a trigger word, ask for definitions, supply yours, and explore the differences.

Be willing to truly listen to your fellow citizens. Note that “[b]y listening attentively, we can take in the experiences of others without necessarily agreeing with what they are advocating.” (David Matthews, The Ecology of Democracy, (2018). Listening does help us to better understand each other.

Make the effort to think things through. Consume media that does more than excite and inflame.  Look for sites and sources that confirm facts or provide context on the complex issues of the day.  As Thomas Jefferson said “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

Look for what is working and get involved in organizations that are trying to unite rather than divide our country.  It’s not about Us v. Them. It’s about all of us, and what we might be as a country.

So reach out, talk, and commit to the good of your neighbors. We can do better.

Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side.

We should have liberty for all.   

– Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, July 4, 1992.

Tips for a Peaceful Thanksgiving

Just in time for Thanksgiving dinner, here are a few resources that all of you who are interested in dialogue might find useful when sitting at the dinner table.

How to Have a Conversation With Your Angry Uncle Over Thanksgiving is a neat tool for practicing your productive dialogue skills. This bot, made available through The New York Times, allows you to interact with an “angry uncle” of either liberal or conservative views. A good way to hone your technique before you meet the relatives!

Better Angels has also provided a brief guide on keeping the dinner table conversation positive by limiting the amount of political conversation that occurs,. This guide also provides tips for one on one conversations.  Read Skills for Thanksgiving Conversations.

For more in depth planning, we also refer you back to these posts from the series A Metaphor From the MidwestWeeding and Watching Part 1 and Weeding and Watching Part 2.

We wish you and yours a happy Thanksgiving and hope these resources prove useful as you enjoy spending time with your families and friends.

Pursuing the “American Dream”

In a recent dialogue class for older students we were discussing the “American Dream” and how this concept shifted over time from a dream based in community (“with liberty and justice for all”) to one rooted in more individually focused consumerism, with a particular focus on home ownership. In previous discussions members of the class had expressed a concern for loss of community and expressed dismay at our bitterly partisan politics.  On this day, the class agreed that one dream they had for the next generation was a political system that was less chaotic and divisive, more productive, and one that encouraged individuals and groups to explore ideas, analyze information, and work together.

What might help us move toward that dream?  A place to start is promoting dialogue rather than talking past each other. Another class, held in the Spring of 2018 developed this “citizen’s guide” to encourage just that.  We recommend this guide to anyone interested in more productive political dialogue before, during, and after our upcoming elections.

Till The Ground

A Metaphor From The Midwest

harvesting-metaphor-3

Once you have your field, the next step in preparing for the harvest is to till, or cultivate, the soil. This means preparing the soil for planting, which includes both plowing to break up the soil and fertilizing to add nutrients. Both of these help the seeds you subsequently plant to grow.

In our political field, trust – a respect and belief in the integrity, good intentions, and capabilities of others – is the soil that helps us grow and flourish as a society.  The trends discussed in our last post have depleted our communal trust.  Using the rubric of “trust taxes” and “trust dividends” described in Stephen Covey’s “Speed of Trust“, these trends have resulted in a destructive tax on the citizenry. This is evidenced through the growing number of citizens who view those not of their own political party as “the enemy”, the excessive defensive posturing and legal positioning by our political parties, and the general level of venom used in discussing differences of interest or information. All of these factors suggest a “trust tax” of 60% or more.  This is a very high burden.

So how might we use dialogue to remediate some of the damage that has been done? Below are three actions that can help break up the hard crust of fear and anger that has formed, followed by two that can help prepare the ground for new growth.

  1. Invite.  Invite others into dialogue. Simply choosing to use dialogue rather than debate – to move beyond the right/wrong, win/lose framing used in debate and actually explore the complexities of intersecting issues —  is a step towards building trust. By choosing dialogue you are moving from an “Us” v. “You” competitive dynamic into a more inclusive “we are in this together and will be stronger together” partnership and problem solving mode. You might begin by acknowledging differences in values or interests while also exploring similarities, by exploring the different questions being asked, or by comparing and evaluating the different sources of information that are being used.  An invitation can be as simple as asking questions like “How would we like it to be? Why?”  Although you can introduce dialogue in everyday conversation, there are also many resources and organized efforts you can connect to and invite others to join.  Two current efforts include the Kettering Foundation’s annual “A Public Voice” collaboration and the Better Angels “One America” bus tour.
  2. Align.  If you are going to invite others into dialogue, once you are there you need to act like you mean it.  The communication patterns that promote dialogue are the opposite of competing factions spitting “trigger words” at each other or ridiculing, rather than engaging with, other points of view. No one likes to be attacked, dismissed, or shamed. If you are going to sustain a dialogue, you will need to act in ways that show interest in, and care and concern for, the others in dialogue. This means aligning your comments with a focus on the relationship, not just the issue being discussed. You can also think about how to align your narratives and questions with stories of wisdom and the common good.
  3. Listen: Often we ‘listen’ simply to find the gap in the conversation in which we might insert our own views, or to harvest fragments of statements to use in our rejoinder. This is not what we mean by “Listen”.  Instead we mean listening in ways that attend to the speaker.  This includes reflecting back an understanding of the speaker’s emotions and concerns, and inviting further thoughts on what might help the speaker move forward.  This kind of reflective listening calms emotions and enhances the speaker’s ability to process new information.  It also strengthens relationships and builds trust by demonstrating respect for the speaker’s presence in the dialogue.
  4. Educate.  John Dewey once said, “Democracy must be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.” As the last election showed, many citizens lack an understanding of how their government actually works, use very different sources of information, are unsure of their own ability to influence the decisions that are made, and might benefit from additional skills in the areas of communication and critical thinking.  Dialogue can help in all of these areas.  Note that in dialogue, education occurs through asking open-ended questions, sharing resources and experiences, and inviting reflection, not through lecturing or proselytizing.
  5. Commit.  Studies in different fields demonstrate that taking personal responsibility for one’s views and actions improves how information is processed, shared and evaluated. It also  builds trust.  This kind of commitment and willingness to be accountable for what one says and does is aligned with sincerity.  It is the opposite of the “bullshit” discussed in the last post. Taking responsibility for what you think and say, admitting what you don’t know, and inviting others to do the same, is the essence of effective dialogue.