There’s a lot of fear and anxiety circulating in the world these days. The airwaves are thick and heavy with this nastiness. In this kind of chaotic environment, those of us are care about something, anything, are often tempted to do one of two things. We go out blazing, loud and proud with our passions leading. Or, we hide.
The first option is a surefire way to lose friends and influence no one, while exhausting and frustrating yourself. The second option may help us keep the peace for a while. But silence can become a sort of violence against yourself, allowing things to fester and robbing you of your agency. I will suggest there’s a middle way.
It feels like a miracle when you can speak up about what's important to you, while not judging others’ opinions and not trying to control the outcome. You have real freedom when you can engage in difficult conversations, and maintain your inner peace.
I've had recent discussions across many forums about touchy topics like terrorism, refugees, and gun control. I have lived examples of it going well. And I have lived examples of it going very badly. The irony is, when I react to expressions of fear and intolerance, I'm often in a state of fear myself (that the world is falling apart) and I'm being intolerant of the ignorance that I see as the cause all of these problems. I'm actually adding to the pile of craziness that I believe I'm speaking against. I found a few things that helped me create a better experience.
1. Find the Hidden Common Ground
One thing I realized was, in my most positive and productive interactions, I felt compassion for the other person. I could see common ground buried beneath our divergent beliefs. We often disagree to the death about the HOW of a situation. How do we solve this problem? On the other hand, the WHY -- the deep WHY -- is almost always the same. As humans, we all have the same basic needs for safety, security, love, belonging, significance and so on. We all want the best for our families, our communities, and our world. We all share the same fears when we feel these things are threatened. By degrading or resisting others’ fears, we only fan the flames. If we embrace others' fears, and acknowledge our own with calm and compassion, then we can invite in something else.
2. Mind Your Own Business
I also discovered that it's important to be honest with myself about what I’m up to by getting into dialogue to begin with. What's my purpose? What's my motive? I have to limit what I see as my responsibility. Otherwise the world can quickly overwhelm me. Sometimes I check in and find that I've been enlisted by my ego to prove some point... to be "right". It helps when I see my only real aim is to be myself, as honestly and authentically and kindly as possible. It's not about being better or smarter. I'm not trying to get into the business of changing minds, or the business of changing the world. It is not my duty (or even my desire) to convince someone to adopt my beliefs. I feel a lot more clear when I remember that my example -- the way that I live my life -- is naturally, and effortlessly, much more compelling than my opinion.
3. Check Yourself Before You Express Yourself
Silence is sometimes be the best answer, but it's not helpful to anyone if you repress your feelings only to blow up later. So, check yourself before you express yourself. Are you reacting, out of fear? Reacting is the typical fast-firing reflex we have when faced with a distressing situation or a disturbing statement, something we are pushing away. It feels hot. It feels sharp. It feels intense. Or, are you responding, with reason and kindness? Responding feels more like you're integrating an idea, moving toward something, or getting closer to someone. It feels warmer, softer, slower. If you're feeling triggered, silence may truly be the best approach... at least, for now. When you're calmer, you are more likely to respond effectively, without trying to control or convince others to see things your way. Then you can say your piece with compassion and let it go.
Our voice is one of the most powerful tools we have to shift our shared reality. Don't let fear hijack you to make anxiety-driven arguments that separate and isolate. And don't let the state of the world silence you into hopelessness either. Allow wisdom and compassion to shine through you instead. If, when we find ourselves trying to be convincing, we can learn to reach for compassion instead, we can be both more peaceful and more persuasive.