We had not discussed politics since the election, treading warily with each other, neither of us wanting to trigger an unpleasant scene. But tension was just under the surface and seeping out in other forms.
Since the US presidential election, many people have experienced tension with a close friend or family member whose views are different than theirs. My own family is no exception, and I was having particular difficulty with a close family member.
I am deeply concerned about the pervasive polarization and the lack of reasonable conversation. People are heavily invested in hurling accusations at the other side, making all kinds of (often wrong) assumptions about what they’re thinking. The truth is there is no such thing as “the liberal viewpoint” or “the conservative viewpoint.” Things are way too complicated for everyone to hold the same viewpoint, no matter what camp you find yourself in.
My work and writing focus on collaboration and finding common ground, and lately as I work to help resolve the polarization, I’ve been struck by the irony of what I’m not practicing in my personal life. The thought of a conversation with this family member was not appealing as he has strong opinions, a tendency to over-explain his views, and little interest in different views. Nevertheless, it was time.
I sent him an email saying I wanted to know how he was seeing the political landscape these days. I said I wasn’t interested in changing his views, I just wanted to know what they are. I was curious about which issues he cared the most about right now, which decisions and political appointments he supported and if there was anything concerning. I said I wasn’t looking for a long explanation, just to know where he stood.
He called, and amazingly, we had our first respectful political conversation, where he simply stated his views without lecturing about them.
I asked him questions with the intent of making sure I really understood his views, not with the intent to challenge them.
As I listened, I heard things I disagreed with and also things I agreed with. I could understand why he sees things the way he does. I saw that we share many of the same concerns, but don’t necessarily agree on what should be done about it. I saw we were in agreement on several important issues. And I heard some things that caused me to reconsider some of my own beliefs.
Since he did not ask about my views, I kept my observations to myself. But interestingly, simply listening to him was enough to reconnect, and the tension has dissipated.
What did I learn?
It’s possible and important to reach across the divide.
Dialogue bridges the divide. The purpose of dialogue is to understand and learn from each other. Not to change anyone’s mind. Not to win. Solely to understand. It’s as simple as that.
And more powerful than you might imagine.
Dialogue begins with listening. In fact, simply listening to each other with the intent of understanding is enough to establish contact and connection.
Four guidelines to build the bridge for dialogue:
1. One person must reach out first, so it might as well be you. Stop waiting to be invited.
2. Make it clear that you simply seek understanding. You are not trying to change the other person’s views and you don’t want them to try to change yours. You might need to repeat that a few times, for the benefit of the other person as well as yourself.
3. Take the time to listen fully. Seeking understanding demonstrates your openness and establishes trust that you’re not trying to change them. And when you listen, you are likely to learn some important things about the other person, and perhaps even your own views.
4. Don’t jump in with your views. Wait to be asked. If the other person is not receptive to listening to your views, it’s a waste of time anyways. If the other person doesn’t ask for your views. Be patient. If you establish a bridge, there will be opportunity for more conversations in the future.
We need to engage in more dialogue, and your points will help many to engage with a listening inquiry. Our guarded opinions need to be dropped. We need to lift up our desire to understand and find common ground.
So glad you agree, Jon. Not only does this attitude help us as a country, but it is also personally liberating.
Before the election, I had an “open inquiry” session with two of my consulting colleagues, who hold different views from my own. I sought — as you did — to understand; not necessarily to change minds. After 30 minutes or so, I think we all came to a place of mutual respect and greater appreciation than where we’d started. It was an important place for us to come to, suspending judgement in the name of learning. We all did. This reminds me of a story about a major negotiation between a US executive and a Japanese executive. After trying to persuade the Japanese executive of the “rightness” of his position, the Japanese exec said simply, “I understand.” Excited and relieved, the American thought he’d persuaded his Japanese counterpart to follow his lead. And then he found out that the other executive was merely saying that he, literally, “understood” the American’s point of view, no more, no less. And so it goes…
Two excellent illustrations, the first of the power of simply seeking understanding, and the second of the challenge of letting go of the need to be right. Thanks so much for deepening this conversation, Larry.
A touching story, Jesse. Thanks for showing that taking the courage to have these conversations works out, and thanks for showing how.
Thanks John. I believe that the place to start is by changing our conversations, instead of complaining to people who agree with us about how awful those are who see things differently. We bridge the divide one conversation at a time.
I believe there is another force at work here that is causing us to “settle into” opposing camps. It is said that most people need an enemy in order to understand who they are; to define themselves “against,” to know who they are and who they are not; even to be able to see themselves, clearly. Nations need “enemies” also in this vein. What we have done, unwittingly, is to find that enemy amongst ourselves instead of outside of ourselves. And it is undermining the fabric of our nation.
Insightful as always. We define ourselves by our boundaries.
Thanks for the reminder Jesse and the story and the courage to reach out across the divide.. “Seek first to understand before being understood” is one of the 7 Habits. It’s a good one. To use a technology metaphor even though we’re speaking english and are in western dress we have different operating systems and world views. We’re all wired differently. Each person believes strongly in their own assessments and conclusions and if you were wired like them and had their life experience you would believe just as strongly as they do. Democracy is not easy. Pluralism takes skill, courage and adulthood. This can be a time of great learning and the opportunity to learn mediating and meditative skills. From my experience those have been important skills to learn and contribute greatly to one’s own life. Or you can go around angry all the time? We have a choice so thanks for choosing!
Helpful thoughts Stewart. And I can attest from own experience is that it does add greatly to our lives. Appreciate your point that it takes “skill, courage and adulthood.”
So timely and must be shared widely. When the vitriol is coming from the top, accompanied by”alternative facts” and a total disregard for any other opinion, it is hard to feel anything but discouraged. However, Jesse, as you point out, I need to reach out to one person at a time and MODEL the behavior of listening without preaching… listening to understand rather than to be understood. Let’s see if I can do it!
Indeed, our most visible leaders are negative models. We must consciously decide to change our conversations, as you point out, “one person at a time.” And as you point out, we model for others how they can do it, and the ripple spreads.
Thank you so much, Jesse. Several people recently have asked for principles or guidelines to help reach across the “divide” (which is sometimes exaggerated). Your 4 are a fantastic set to start with. I am hearing others starting to do this across the political spectrum. It is very good practice just to listen and not react. Another technique I learned from William Ury’s work on conflict resolution is that you should listen until you can paraphrase the other person’s perspective so well that they agree you have understood. Thanks for a practical, timely and powerful post!
Good addition: “you should listen until you can paraphrase the other person’s perspective so well that they agree you have understood.” I actually did that at one point. I said, “I’m going to say what I think you’re saying and I want you to tell me if this is correct.” It helped because I had missed an important nuance. Thanks for your thoughts and kind words, Elizabeth.
Great point about paraphrasing Elizabeth. People often think that if you were listening and really heard them then of course you would agree. So you have to prove you heard them by paraphrasing and then say that there is another way to look at the situation!
Jesse, I know you know that you are totally “preaching to the choir” on this!!!
I absolutely love this quote from your post and your suggestions!
“As I listened, I heard things I disagreed with and also things I agreed with. I could understand why he sees things the way he does. I saw that we share many of the same concerns, but don’t necessarily agree on what should be done about it. I saw we were in agreement on several important issues. And I heard some things that caused me to reconsider some of my own beliefs.”
Thanks, Chery. My experience was that listening deeply created a shift to a more objective perspective.
Hi Jesse Each of us unique in identity searching challenging and growing to understand our relationship with oneself is the journey we call life. Respect appreciation humility gratitude values morals for ourselves allows us to understand and accept others opinions beliefs without judgement. Empowering in seeking to be gracious in our listening is our greatest learning to be the best we can be. Willingness to create grow shine transform adapt reinvent learn from each person we meet is a gift in our quest of personal growth. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Lovely thoughts, Hoana. I think it boils down to recognizing the humanity in each of our fellow human beings.
Jesse, thank you for asking me to post my comment originally from FB on this, to your blog. The original brief comment is below, followed by some further comments on this topic:
My FB Comment:
Yes, And. . . Is dialogue contingent on a sufficient commonality of language and thought? Are shared knowledge, understanding, and rationality fundamental criteria, without which respectful, generative dialogue can not exist?
My belief is that dialogue is indeed contingent on a minimum level of shared language, and some minimum level of shared rational thought, with the capacity to listen, learn, unlearn, and relearn. Since the Brexit vote, and now with the American campaign/election, I believe a fundamental shift has occurred in our societies. To me, it appears that a significant mass of citizens have accepted a dominant narrative counter to that of the prior status quo. In this counter-narrative, many see themselves as victims of the “system” – the prior socio-political status quo. The power of this (arguably false in my view) counter-narrative has been so strong as to make many people act contrary to the values and beliefs they have historically espoused. The result has been a tumble over the edge from the presumed stability of our status quo, into a time-space of comparative chaos. A time in which multiple new narratives are competing to make sense to a new critical mass of people. If and when that happens, we may again have a basis for generative civil discourse. In the meantime, I believe we are seeing a retreat to a tribal/guild sort of affinity clustering- people finding those of similar mind and values, with whom to associate and act.
So. . . for dialogue, my concern is that absent a sufficent basis in fact- and shared-values thought/action, respectful dialogue may not be possible. I have personally experienced this with some of my own family members. My greater concern is that new dialogue may require a shared experience of a catastrophic nature, to sufficently catalyze new sense-making.
Thanks and I lookmforward to your further thoughts!
Thanks for elaborating on your comment, Bruce. Your analysis rings true. And so I believe the question remains, what do we each do at this point in time? At a macro level, I believe the question to ask ourselves is, “how can I act as a responsible steward during this deconstruction?” It might not be about fixing things, but about being present with compassion. At the level of personal relationships, I believe the question is: “If it were possible to have genuine dialogue or at least respectful conversations about politics with those who disagree with you, would you want to?” Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a carefully crafted and cogent comment!
Jesse – I love this post. You have a truly amazing gift for taking what is a very complicated and emotionally-charged situation and simplifying it for us, showing us how we can move forward. Many of us are hurting right now, and are deeply longing to connect more meaningfully with others, even those who have very different opinions from us. We want to heal the divide, and we need to. Thank you!
I sense that the longing you describe is deep and growing. Many people are bewildered and somewhat frozen. I don’t often write about my personal life, but my hope was that by describing my own personal experience and what I learned, rather than reporting on what the experts say, my message might be more effective. So glad to hear you thought it was. And many thanks for your wisdom!
I love the word “longing” and indeed we do. I also believe that we must speak up when we observe behavior that attacks our values as a individuals and as a nation. To be “understanding and thoughtful” does not mean being inactive.
Listening is so important and so hard to do. I’m facing the same challenges you discussed. Your suggestions are excellent. I can add only two insights that work for me. First is to remember that listening is not the same thing as agreeing. That insight liberates me. Second, when I’m talking to people and they say something that I may not agree with, I respond with “I hear you.” Something powerful often happens in that moment if the other person considers what I just said. It’s like they think “really? You heard me?” How powerful when two intelligences can work as one, if only for the purposes of hearing each other.
Great points. Acknowledging that you hear and understand someone does not mean you have to agree with them. If we can’t separate these, we can’t really listen. AND it’s important for the other person to understand this also – that your listening should not be confused with agreement. MUCH thanks for deepening this important conversation, John.
Totally loved your counsel on bridging the divide. Your 4 guidelines are great and I want to elaborate on the idea of asking the correct question which you did in calling your friends. Here’s another situation. Immediately after I had offered a sermon at an interfaith church in Seattle, I was invited into multiple conversations. One was most challenging as the white gentleman reminded me of the “rule of law” and that undocumented immigrants are here illegally. For moments I fought with myself to not get upset, but to listen. Finally, I was able to pose the correct question, “given the labor immigrants bring and the work force our nation needs, what would be fair?” After a little prodding he suggested that those who had been working here for several years should be provided a means for securing legal status if they commit to learn English and become citizens. The experience reminded me of the power of listening and asking correct questions to develop allies
Thanks for sharing your own story of how you created a bridge, Roberto. We need to share these stories to show that it is possible and how. The power of asking the right question, indeed. Instead of getting into a debate, which occurs at an intellectual level, you asked a question of the heart, “what would be fair?”
What mindful and courageous presence you demonstrated in your reach to begin bridging the gap. It can be all too easy to get derailed by another who may be less interpersonally skilled.
Your humble curiosity in seeking to understand, all while finding the shared humanity, certainly helped bypass the fight or flight.
Kudos to you for your patience and skill in making the connection towards bridge building. Congratulations for yet another article well written!
I appreciate your recognizing that it was courageous. I think we avoid these kinds of conversations with those who are closest to us because we have so much to lose. And yet, we need courage most here because we lose more by not reaching out. I think the key to success is indeed as you describe it “humble curiosity.” Thanks for your kind words and for adding to the conversation, Cynthia.
This is so important. In my experience it’s always fear that holds us back from having these crucial conversations – fear of conflict, of our own seemingly uncontrollable anger, of losing face, or maybe even of being taken out of our cozy comfort zone and being forced to see that we’ve been wrong all this time.
I so wish our education system taught our children emotional intelligence, and how to use questions and exquisite listening to really understand the other person’s frame of reference. I truly believe that if the entire world starting doing that in a couple of generations we could put an end to war.
I agree Cathy. Success depends more on our human relation skills than on technical skills. The movement away from educating children in these skills has not been beneficial for us individually or collectively. Thanks for your insights!