The recent school shootings have triggered healthy lament and debate, but they also stir-up something else. An Avett Brothers song summarizes it with one line:
“Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different— we love to talk on things we don’t know about.”
So this week it’s one more game of chase around the cul-de-sac with left and right taking turns as cat and mouse. Meanwhile, author David French drives up, rolls down his window and says calmly, “I was just up the hill over there and think I see a way forward we might all agree will help the next time.” I encourage you to read his piece about “red flag laws.”
The problem of tribes
Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is based on a premise that people actually want to connect with others who don’t agree with them already. Not so much these days. Over the past decade a national neurosis formed—a distorted sense of nobility from stirring up outrage among people already in agreement.
It takes time and energy to reach out beyond one’s tribe. You have to build some trust, earning the right to be heard. That begins by listening well, discovering what’s under those opinions that push your buttons. Here’s how the curious earn the right to be heard.…
Stay in their moment
Good listeners self-reflect. They know their internal barriers and reactions that get in the way of communication. They’re willing to take responsibility for emotional reactions and learn from them. Some reactions put up a fight and others take flight. Either way, emotions can flood a conversation leaving little room for them to breathe.
A little self-awareness and self-management can keep you in someone else’s moment, in a posture of discovery. For example, use English. Name the thing you’re feeling. In time it gets easier to name it out loud to draw a line more impartially, for the sake of a common goal. Naming barriers in the flow of conversation can help you get past them to stay in someone else’s moment.
Wait for the magic word
“Because” can be a magic word. Sometimes it signals the pivotal moment of a conversation. That’s the point of trust when people reveal something hidden or something you help them discover. “Because” opens up a new level of self-disclosure.
Maybe you remember balancing equations in seventh-grade algebra. My algebra teacher, Mr. Forringer said he loved Math so much he took equation practice sheets with him camping. (Please, no.) But his passion did help me learn to do it— especially to become curious about the unknown value of “x” on the other side of the equals sign. In a tense conversation, “because” is the equals sign.
What follows that word is the unknown value. It’s the thing that motivates an opinion. Until there is a “because,” all you know is what someone thinks. After the “because,” you find out why.
Get below the waterline
After someone risks that magic word, if you stay curious and receive it well—not pouncing in judgment— there’s a chance you both may travel further down the iceberg of discovery below the waterline. In and earlier post I mentioned this iceberg metaphor. Below the waterline is where personal histories form us. It’s the emotional substructure of highs and lows, ideals and wounds. The values that shape opinions are not always evident even to the person voicing them.
In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt describes this substructure. It a place where people balance the need of an individual against needs of the whole. Haidt’s central metaphor is a rider on an elephant, where the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. Back to the earlier image: our reasons rise up from the emotions and values under the waterline. Haidt says even the most intelligent among us “use their IQ to buttress their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”
Conclusions for now
Moral sensibilities engage before reason and experience kick in. For example, some people regard pain as a justice issue even if it is self-inflicted. They feel disgusted by individual pain no matter what. Others feel the same way about issues that are more abstract. This one innate difference can distinguish the left and right side of the political spectrum.
Why do so few conversations, debates, and articles take us to this layer of values? Indeed, opinions and decisions form at this level. What if we learned to deal with differences at this layer, putting our values into the English language? We might become more curious and better listeners.
We might even be ready to move out of the cul-de-sac when someone rolls down his window and points to a better way ahead.
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”James 1:19