I published the precursor to this article nearly a year ago, under the title: "Not Convincing with Passion? Try Compassion Instead." I thought it would be a good time to revive it and expand it as we head into the end-of-year holiday season for 2016. As we come together with our families and communities, it is a reminder to focus ourselves on coming together with kindness and compassion. This has been a complicated, disorienting, and intense year for many people around the world. I will start out by saying that while I have many of my own strong opinions, beliefs, and values, this article is not about any of that.
Politics has become a dirty word, but the word comes from the Greek politikos, which simply means "of, for, or relating to citizens.” This is an article about politics that is not really so much about politics as it is about engagement. In other words, this is an article about politics that strives to be apolitical.
One of the most important ways we can live our purpose is to engage our voice to create the change we want to see in the world.
I hope that this blog has something that everyone can benefit from, no matter what your life purpose, your color, your creed, or what flag you happen to fly. Another title for this article could easily have been "How to Talk to Your Hillary / Bernie / Trump / [fill in the blank] Supporter Friends From Your Heart, Without Losing Your Mind."
What motivates me to share this now, is observing that we seem to have lost the ability to actually talk to each other, to use dialogue as a method of discovery. We have lost the plot on true engagement and waste so much energy on promoting, defending or protecting our foregoing beliefs.
In this current environment, those of us who care deeply… about something, about anything… are can often be tempted to do one of two things. We either go out blazing, loud and proud with our passions leading, primed to look for a fight with anyone who will listen to us, or oppose us, or ultimately ignore us. Or the other impulse is to go underground and hide, waiting for someone else to speak or act on our behalf.
I have played plenty with both of these two strategies myself in recent weeks. The first option is a surefire way to lose friends and influence no one, while exhausting and frustrating yourself. The second option... Well, silence may help us maintain the outer appearance of peacefulness for a while. But it then eventually it becomes a sort of quiet violence against yourself, allowing things to fester and ultimately robbing you of your agency. I am going to suggest there’s a middle way.
It feels like a miracle when you can speak up about what's important to you, while letting go of judgments of others’ opinions and not trying to control the outcome. You have real freedom when you can engage in difficult conversations, and still maintain your inner peace.
Here are some things that I have found helpful for engaging in dialogue on tough topics.
1. Find the Hidden Common Ground
One thing I realized was that in the most positive and productive interactions that I have had, I was feeling compassion for the other person. I was able to see that there was common ground hidden beneath our divergent beliefs. A lot of times, we may 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. And the beauty is, it doesn’t matter whether the other person recognizes their desires at that level or not, it matters only that you keep line of sight to this truth for yourself. By degrading or resisting people's fears, we fan the flames. By embracing others' fears and acknowledging our own fears, while bringing calm and compassion to the table, we invite others to choose again, something else, something different.
2. Mind Your Own Business
This one might seem counterintuitive, particularly if I am advocating for honest engagement. But one thing that I have learned is critical is for me to be honest with myself about what I am up to by entering the dialogue in the first place. If the intention is misplaced, the outcome will almost certainly be unsatisfying. What's my purpose? What's my motive? I have to limit what I take on as my responsibility. Otherwise the world quickly overwhelms me. And sometimes when I check in with myself, I'll realize that I've unconsciously been enlisted by my ego to pursue some end, to prove some point... to be "right". It helps when I can see that my simple aim is to be myself, as honestly and authentically and kindly as possible. It's not about being better or smarter than someone else. I'm not trying to get into the business of changing the other person’s mind, or the business of changing the world. That's a terrible business to be in. It is not my duty or even my desire to convince someone else to adopt a certain belief or opinion that I favor. I always feel a lot more relaxed when I am coming from that place. I remember that my example -- the way that I live my own life -- is naturally, and effortlessly, much more compelling than my opinion.
3. Check Yourself Before You Express Yourself
Silence may sometimes be the answer, but sometimes it's not. It's not helpful to anyone if you quietly repress your anger and frustration, only to turn it inward on yourself. So, simply check yourself before you express yourself. Are you reacting, out of fear? Reacting is the typical fast-firing reflex that we have to a distressing situation or a disturbing statement, something that we are pushing away. It often feels hot; it feels sharp; it feels intense. Or... are you responding, with reason and kindness? Responding usually feels more like you're integrating an idea, moving toward something, or getting closer to someone. It feels warmer, softer, slower, calmer. If you're feeling triggered, then silence may truly be the best approach... at least, until you feel a bit more level headed. Once you are firmly grounded in yourself, you are more likely to respond without needing to control or convince others to see things your way. Then you can say your piece with kindness and compassion and then let it go.
4. Know When To (Let It) Go
This is something that I feel needs to be added to the list, because ultimately not all discussions are productive. In fact, many are counterproductive in the sense that they trigger fears, anxiety, frustration and reinforce existing separation. So here is my handy 3-part guide to what is necessary for productive dialogue on any touchy topic.
Compassion. Make sure that your conversation is grounded in the basic, mutual understanding that the other person or persons you are interacting with is more like you than unlike you. Know that while we may disagree on the means to our ends, as humans we share the same fundamental needs and desires for love, understanding, expression, freedom and security.
Curiosity. Try to balance your statements with an equal number of questions. And I’m not talking about those question-statements that are not really questions, like: “Are you an idiot?” :P I mean genuine questions. Be open to the possibility that you might learn something new or come to appreciate a perspective you haven't seen before. Adopt a posture of inquiry, not jury.
Critical Thinking. Keep your focus on learning from each other, to challenge and be challenged so we can be educated and broaden our worldview. Question the validity of arguments, the veracity of sources, and the acknowledge the bias inherent in our views. In other words, stay on the topic of ideologies and remember that these are not the same as identities.
Be wary if you feel yourself falling into a campaign to promote or defend or convince. Be watchful for name calling, insults, attacks on individuals' intelligence, integrity or character. Those are all signs that the above conditions are not present in your interaction. If your dialogue partner or partners or you yourself start becoming triggered to the point you are unable to maintain any of the three lenses above, then step away and re-engage another day.