Tag Archives: partisan politics

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.

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.

 

 

 

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
destruction,
hatred,
loss,

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.

 

 

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Phrasing and Planning

Among the questions asked by my students at the beginning of the semester were the following:  “how can you explore the space between two extremes” and “how can you teach the polarized combatants that the best solution may not be as simple as “yes” or “no”?” They had had ample experience with, and wanted to change the pattern of,  conversations that quickly degenerate from an exchange of views to insults (“didn’t know you were that stupid . . .”) or identity questions (“didn’t know you were one of them”/”so liberal . . .”/”so reactionary . . .”).  Students from other countries were particularly taken aback by this kind of response to a perspective shared from their own experience.

Our classes on dialogue, conflict analysis, and conflict mapping helped the students to answer these questions and to build the skills needed to facilitate the final sessions on gun violence.  Students learned and practiced the dialogue skills of reflective listening, reframing, and asking open-ended questions. The students also used the “pie chart” illustration of sources of conflict, “iceberg” chart of levels of conflict, and conflict maps, to analyze in advance where participants were likely to differ, the different language and framings used for different positions, and how that language might be reframed to best support the participants and invite their participation.

As a result of this analysis, the student facilitators were more confident intervening both to support participants by reflective summarizing, and to open conversations by using questions to link related points. They were able to listen and summarize in ways that educated the participants,  promoting more productive discussion (e.g, “so freedom of choice is important to you (1st person), and you (2nd person) want freedom to make choices about your child’s classroom.”) In addition, this pre-session analysis  helped the facilitators to maintain the dialogue boundaries for the individual sessions (e.g., when responding to a participant who was advocating for a particular solution at an early session: “we are not here tonight to debate solutions, although we are exploring the issues of cost and safety. You have strong concerns on . . .”).

Despite the dialogue training in class, the students who were participating in the discussions (as opposed to facilitating) did, as the discussions heated up, at times fall into more traditional positional framings (e.g., right/wrong; us/them; good/bad). Several also stated their views strongly, using associated rhetorical flourishes (e.g., “who wouldn’t agree? “all the studies show”,  “the only valid studies show”, “everyone knows”, only a fool would”).   Yet when this happened, most participants failed to take the bait, using both humor, questions, and another dialogue technique  — “I statements with invitations” ( example “I have had a different experience, do you mind if I share it?”) — to continue the dialogue.

The “superintendent” was particularly effective at introducing new information in a non-threatening way, using such introductory phrases as “something that troubles me is . . .”, “I’m not sure of the effect that would have on [then naming a cost category like insurance, additional training, amending the collective bargaining agreement, etc.].  At other times he framed his remarks by inviting others to help with a problem that would need solving [“how would we respond to that concern? (referencing a parent’s comment that they would not allow their children in the classroom if the teacher were allowed to carry a gun)].  Other participants also used phrasing that drew others into agreement including an observation that “we don’t want to be an experiment” and a question: “if we’re going to have to raise money, what is the best way to spend it?”

Through this process the students were able to directly experience how responsive phrasing that demonstrates respect and care for the speaker, leads to better listening and understanding for all participants, and ultimately to more informed choices by the group.

 

Teaching the Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Sequence – 3

Our final class forum was more deliberative. Participants were given a student-created discussion guide, modeled after the National Issues Forum topic guides. This guide featured three “options” and asked the participants to consider the pros and cons, and tensions among each.  Again, the forum invitation emphasized that all were welcome.  It also reflected the universal concern with safety that had been expressed at the prior forum:

Please join the community, and the local school board tonight, . . . to discuss the proposed conceal- and-carry referendum and discuss options that are associated with the issue.  Don’t miss your chance to protect not only our school, but our community.  All are welcome to attend.  We look forward to your input and any ideas you have about the issue!

As at the prior session, participants were welcomed as they arrived, and the facilitators explained how the options for that night’s discussion were drawn from the previous sessions.  This confirmed that the participant input was both valued and being put to good use.  Participants were also given a timed agenda which promoted focus during the discussion that followed.

The options presented for discussion in the guide were:

  1. Arm and train school personnel to act as a first line of defense.
    This option focused on selecting and training a few employees to use and carry weapons in schools, with required, ongoing training and evaluation.  Drawbacks identified included the cost of training, the potential for accidents, and the potential for higher insurance premiums.
  2. Allow teachers and community members to carry and help protect the school.  Here the guide noted that community members might be in a better position to respond to incidents quickly.  The guide noted as drawbacks the potential for alienating some parents, the difficulty of controlling an already chaotic situation, and the potential for higher insurance premiums.
  3. None of the above, look for alternatives. A primary drawback noted here was that the adoption of a policy would be delayed, leaving questions of security unanswered and no clear guidance for emergency situations. Embedded in this option, however, was the fact that there was an existing, although unwritten, policy that allowed police to carry in schools.

Participants explored a number of concerns during the small group discussions, including cost, coherency with the educational mission of the schools, and the unknown consequences of various approaches. As one participant summed it up: “we don’t want to be an experiment.”  Another participant re-focused his small group with the question:  “if we are going to raise money, what is the best way to spend it?”

Although the participants were separated into two different groups for discussion, the patterns of dialogue in each group were similar. During the discussion of the first option, the participants identified components that still needed be defined or answered, and raised new questions like whether parents could seek waivers. Participants in both of the two small discussion groups also universally rejected the second option after identifying a wide range of safety concerns.  Each group also found that it had a common comfort level with the third option and its embedded “status quo” of having police provide security. Each also discussed how to raise taxes to pay for extra police hours.

Towards the end of the session the two groups were brought together to share their thoughts.  They were energized by how similar their conclusions were.  As one of the facilitators later observed, this “validated the view that the group could create options that had support of the entire community.”  As the groups debriefed, they quickly embraced the few small tweaks or options that the other had not thought of (such as including additional funds for counseling or early intervention with troubled teens). Each “tweak” addressed questions that both groups had been struggling with.

A suggestion by one participant, to approve the emerging consensus as an “interim policy” subject to a future referendum (in the event that a significant segment of the community requested a referendum on a policy change), sealed the deal.   The group unanimously endorsed this approach of adopting an interim written policy that incorporated the status quo of allowing only law enforcement officers to carry in schools. As they did so, participants who had entered the discussion with widely divergent views explained their support of the “interim policy” in similar ways.  These included references to a number of factors that had arisen during the prior discussions, including “allowing time to gain experience”, the ability to “monitor problems and gather data”, the confidence the community had in its police, the need to identify and secure a funding source before increasing costs, and the cost-benefits of relying on police rather than others.  Participants appeared to be both surprised and relieved with what they had achieved.  As the meeting ended, the energy level remained both high and positive, and participants engaged in friendly conversation as they adjourned.