Sharing an Emotional Request

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Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, Third Query.

I’m still working on how to balance it all.  Every day I wake up and before long I feel tense, asking myself, “What can I do today to make a positive difference to our country?  How can I make my voice, calling for collaboration and connection, heard?”  It’s a struggle to extricate myself from that, and be present to work, family, chores, etc.

But I think I’m doing better.  Every day I feel an urge to write.  I have ordered postcards with the Healing Through Connection photo, title, and URL, to write to Congress.  I figure, if I’m going to write to them, they might as well know who I am and what I stand for (which, I hope, this blog makes pretty clear).

I’m never sure how effective it is to send emails via senators’ and representatives’ web pages, does anyone know?  Well anyway, it probably can’t hurt, and it makes me feel better that I’m doing something.  Today I started with my US representative, writing about Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest and ties to Russia.  I then copied, pasted, and edited to send to each of my senators.  I noticed that each time I revised, I added a sentence or two that brought my personal perspective on government into clearer relief.  It’s not just about policy.  It’s about how policy gets negotiated–which is about communication and relationships.  Finally, I wrote to Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The letter is below.  Ironically, I forgot to include the link to this blog.  But that’s okay, I’ll probably write him again soon.

I’m pretty proud of this letter (email).  I think it’s respectful and validating, while also challenging.  I tried to imagine Senator McCain actually reading it.  I want him to feel seen–to understand that though I am not his constituent or a member of his party, I still appreciate him as a person.  We are all in this together, and I want him to feel supported by people ‘on the other side.’  I want to embolden any part of him that wishes to make an emotional appeal to his colleagues.  Whenever we see the word ’emotional’ we immediately, subconsciously, also think ‘hysterical.’  They are far from synonymous, and I want to take that stigma away.

Two articles I read this week support my conviction for taking an emotional/limbic approach to political conversations.  The first was a detailed piece in The New Yorker that describes the science behind why facts don’t change our minds.  Second was an October article in the Harvard Business Review on how to engage and make it safe for people (Trump supporters in particular) to change their minds and positions.  It does not specifically reference the Harvard Negotiation Project, but it reminds me in many ways of the book Getting to Yes, written by HNP founders William Ury and Roger Fisher.  I plan to write more about principles from this book in the coming weeks.  I have listened to it again since the election, and it helps ground me.

I thought about sharing my letter on one of the many secret, liberal groups on Facebook, and/or on my personal page.  But somehow it felt more appropriate to share here.  I am aware that this makes me vulnerable to public attacks on my politics and positions.  With engagement comes risks, so boundaries are in order.  My boundaries here are the same as on Facebook:

  1. No ad hominem.
  2. Keep your comments respectful and civil.
  3. Read the entire post before commenting.
  4. I reserve the right to remove comments that violate the requests above.  Commenting on this blog is like coming into my home and talking to me.  I would not allow you to fling fecal words in my home, at me or my other guests, and the same principle applies here.

What do you think?

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Dear Senator McCain,

Thank you for your decades of service to our country.

I am a liberal independent from Chicago, a woman, a daughter of immigrants, and a physician.

I remember the 2008 campaign and how you treated Barack Obama with respect and professionalism.  I remember how you corrected the woman at a debate when she claimed he was an Arab.  You made a deep impression on me that night, for manifesting integrity with unwavering conviction.  I see you doing it again now, as we face the profoundly alarming and appalling existential threat of the new administration.

I write today to request that you consider how best to use your influence and credibility, with your longstanding tenure in the military and the Senate, to encourage and empower your colleagues, especially those on the right, to stand up for the conscience of the nation.  We need a comprehensive, bi-partisan investigation into Donald Trump’s many conflicts, and especially those with Russia. I know you already support this.

I have no idea what it must be like in your work.  But as a primary care physician, I talk to people for a living, trying to help them change their behavior to more closely align with their long term health goals.  It takes kindness, persistence, patience, presence, and trust.  Simply arguing facts and positions does not work.  We need to appeal to people’s emotions–to their deeply held (and perhaps forgotten or buried?) values of integrity, responsibility, accountability, and conscience.  We humans are emotional decision-makers, though we think ourselves so rational.  Research tells us that much of the time, we simply rationalize.  Thus, to change people’s behavior, we need to shed emotional light, with compassion and empathy, on the discrepancies between their actions and their integrity.  And we need to make it safe for them to admit to those discrepancies, rather than shame them for it.  Only then will they, slowly, make meaningful change.

I imagine that over the years, you have cultivated the relationships with your colleagues that paved the way for the important conversations that must happen now.  Please, for all our sakes, engage with your colleagues around your common humanity and shared mission of protecting our democracy, and of showing the world that our government is one of integrity.

Thank you, and best wishes to you and your family.

Sincerely,

Catherine Cheng, MD FACP

 

Is it Blog-Worthy? Also: Get Both Sides of the Story.

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Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, Second Query

Another RoE I have adopted lately is Do It In Person.  I’m still waiting for my conservative friends across town to take me up on my offer, and I’m extending invitations to other conservative friends to “talk” over coffee.  In December I signed up on Hi From The Other Side, a site that matches people from divergent political persuasions to meet locally and talk about it!  I’m still waiting for a match…

In the meantime, I’m still posting stuff on Facebook.  I’m exercising more discipline, though–sharing less impulsively, and taking time to add an interpretive (and hopefully thought-provoking) preamble, rather than hitting “Share now” all the time.  And I make sure to request of my friends often:

  1. Read the entire article before commenting.
  2. No ad hominem (learned this from Fr. James Martin)
  3. Keep it civil and respectful; I reserve the right to remove any and all shitty comments.

Tonight I worked on a post for a long time, looking up articles and comparing perspectives.  It turned out how I wanted it–biased and also a good attempt at objectivity, overall positive in tone.  Since I have allowed myself to write about politics on this blog, I wondered if this FB post would be worthy to publish here?

I generally consider blog posts to be more thoughtful and deliberate than Facebook posts.  But then, this FB post was both of those things.

So I ask you, my readers and fellow bloggers: Is the piece below worthy of this blog?  If so, maybe I can consolidate some work in the future!

Thank you in advance for your kind feedback!

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This is interesting.

Fox News is saying that the left is organizing to disrupt and bully at Republican town halls. I lost the link to the video, but here is an article that basically says the same thing.

Here is the document they reference, from the Indivisible group.

The Fox and NY Post reports make it sound like Organizing for Action is staging a series of coups at Republican town halls only to disrupt (and presumably not to address concerns that have meaning to people).
The left says it’s taking pages from the Tea Party playbook.

So I Googled ‘tea party protest strategy’ and got a page full of references…

I opened this one first, from August, 2009.

It mentions a Tea party strategy memo, but the link does not work.

But it does include: “The memo, authored by Robert MacGuffie, who runs the website rightprinciples.com [apparently defunct now, from what I can tell], suggests that tea partiers should ‘pack the hall… spread out’ to make their numbers seem more significant, and to ‘rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation…to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early…. to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda…stand up and shout and sit right back down.'”

Then I opened the Wikipedia page on Tea Party Protests.

Under the ‘Tactics’ section:

“Some Tea Party organizers have stated that they look to leftist Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals for inspiration. Protesters have also appropriated left-wing imagery; the logo for the March 9/12 on Washington featured a raised fist design that was intended to resemble those used by the pro-labor, anti-war, and black power movements of the 1960s. In addition, the slogan ‘Keep Your Laws Off My Body’, usually associated with pro-choice activists, has been seen on signs at tea parties.[129]”

Of note, in the Indivisible instructional document, it does say to spread out to make it seem like there is more widespread consensus in the room. It does say to enter quietly and NOT be disruptive, and wait until the floor is opened to questions, so that you are more likely to have a chance to speak. It does say to be respectful, polite, and persistent. It does say to make your comments specific to, and to briefly summarize, a particular issue or piece of legislation, because there are so many bills that not all legislators will know all of them (which I thought was both practical and thoughtful). It does say to ask a specific but open-ended question, such as “What will you do about…” instead of yes-no questions.

So, it looks like these strategies get traded one side of the aisle/spectrum to the other, but each tries to blame the other for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I am so glad I took the time to see what ‘the other side’ is saying. It does not surprise me that they would see the same words I see and interpret them very differently. And, with just a little digging, I was able to see that none of this is new–these tactics have been in use for decades if not longer (maybe all of you knew this, but as my political interest has only skyrocketed recently, I’m still on the steep part of the learning curve).

So let’s not be so quick to judge and vilify, eh?  We are all just trying to get seen, heard, understood, and accepted.  And when I write ‘all’ I mean we *all*–left, right, up, down, gay, straight, male, female, child, adult–ALL of us!!

If we want ‘the others’ to listen, shouldn’t we *all* try to lead by example and listen well first ourselves?

Train to Withstand the Discomfort

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Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, First Query

How fascinating!  I thought this series would be so easy to write…  I spend so many hours every day deliberating on how to talk to people, fantasizing about successful encounters, and preparing mindful defenses against verbal attacks.  Yet crickets have chirped here for two weeks, and even now as I type, I feel almost overcome with apprehension.

The Better Part of Valor…

I had this lofty goal last month to seek out and engage in person, all of my friends on ‘the other side.’  I even sent a card to a couple of them on the other side of town, asking if I could come to visit and “talk.”  I feel an urgency to reconcile and reconnect.  But today I realize that you can’t force it.  Sometimes it’s just too uncomfortable.  You never know what the other person will say, or what you will say, that will trigger one or both of you and emotionally hijack the whole encounter.  So sometimes it’s best to just not go there.

Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch

But what can we do in the meantime?  How can we train now, to make it easier in the future?  It seems somewhat like exercise to me.  There is an app called TRX Force (I have no interests in this business), a twelve week progressive strength and interval training program using those torturous straps that hang from the ceiling.  When I first started the program with my trainer, I dreaded every session.  The shortness of breath, the shaking, the pain, gaaaagh!!  Every session early on, I secretly hoped she would let me off the hook.  But I also knew that with her support, I could overcome the discomfort and finish.  I have gotten through every session, some more easily than others.  Last Tuesday was Day 2 of Week 11. I felt so much weaker and less motivated than usual that day (all this stress, grrrr), and it was the hardest workout yet.  The ‘during’ part SUCKED.  My biceps and quads felt like jell-o melting off of their bones.  Then afterward, the victory of accomplishment filled me with pride.  It lit a new intrinsic fire, and my home workouts now are harder and longer than ever before.

Maybe it’s the same for talking politics.  Just thinking of encounters with ‘the other side’ can fill us with dread and tension.  We catastrophize immediately, not only about what they might say, but at how it might unleash torrents of our least controllable emotions.  So we instinctively run the other way.  What if we could train to withstand this discomfort?  What if we could find a safe space to practice, so we might feel stronger when challenged for real?  I propose two methods here.

Desensitize

We all know the satisfaction and comfort of echo chambers.  Seeing, hearing, and reading that which validates our existing positions feels so good.  But the farther we regress here, the harder it becomes to tolerate a dissenting view.  We must resist this temptation; we are called to be more disciplined than this.  I have friends and family who post articles and videos from sights like Conservative Fighter and Red State.  I find the headlines inflammatory, and my initial reaction is to cringe, dismiss, and move on.

Lately I have resolved to open at least one of these posts every few days.  To walk the talk of reaching across the divide, I must try seeing from others’ point of view.  These are my friends, people I grew up with, my colleagues.  What about these stories and articles appeals to them?  In the privacy of my home, at times of my choosing, I can practice opening my mind to a potential partial truth from any source.  I learned from life coaching a long time ago that, “we are all right, and only partially.”

In no way does opening my mind to possible other truths mean that I abandon skepticism or critical appraisal.  It does mean, however, that I practice excluding prejudice.  It means looking and listening with objectivity as much as possible.  “I have to pace myself,” a friend told me recently.  Yes.

In a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show, he interviewed the controversial alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, during which he admonishes his audience, “Don’t take the bait, liberals.”  I think I agree.  The goal here is eventually to rise above the reflexive, emotionally hijacked state.  When I feel my brow furrow, lips curl, heart rate accelerate,  and armpits sweat, I know I’m close to my limits.  I can choose to disengage and try again next time.  Just like with TRX Force, my tolerance and openness core will strengthen the longer I stick with the program.  I can then engage with an intact and rational intellect, guided by my core values of connection and shared humanity, seeking common interests and goals.

Uphold the Devil’s Advocate

Since the election, I often feel attacked by people on ‘my side’ whenever I suggest that ‘the others’ may not all be racist and misogynist xenophobes.  It’s not safe in some of my own circles to consider the humanity of the other side.  This refusal to consider multiple points of view, even among those who mostly agree with us, seriously threatens our capacity for meaningful discourse, from the inside out.  The echo chambers reverberate ever louder, drowning out our intellectual and emotional calling for generosity and connection.  Us vs. Them group-think oppresses, and it’s dangerous to our dialogue.  I wonder if moderates on the right also experience this.

Hereafter, I resolve to stand up a little taller in defense of people in general.  When I hear broad brush generalizations, I will play Devil’s Advocate and speak up for a valid alternative point of view.  I will ask questions starting with phrases like, “What if they also…” and “What is a more generous assumption we can make about…”  I hope more of us can practice holding this precious space.  Making room for another’s point of view does not weaken our own.  Respectful debate of dissenting opinions makes us more agile and articulate.  And the best place to practice is first within our own tribes.

Moving Forward

I had a list of ideals for this series, like “Rehumanize the ‘Others’” “Mind your limits,” and “Stay in Curiosity.”  It’s hard to separate and prioritize them; as I think of any one, the others inevitably intertwine.  So it will take me a while between posts to disentangle my thoughts.  Thank you for your patience and your feedback.  Maybe we can all be training buddies on this long journey.

Exploring the Rules of Engagement: A New Blog Series

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The Descent and the Rising

The past two weeks have assailed, masticated, consumed, digested, and expelled important parts of my psyche.  A week after basking in peaceful solidarity at the Women’s March, I found myself losing sleep and breaking out—both signs of acute distress.  My mind swam with questions of identity, purpose, and action.  I wrestled with fears around policy, violence, and integrity.  All of a sudden I wasn’t enough, I wasn’t doing enough.  Resist!  Call your representatives now!  Support this march and that protest!  And on the internet, rage escalated everywhere.

I read this article, which I highly recommend, on how to stay engaged and not lose your mind.  The author recommends that we focus our actions on one or two issues, and gives useful self-care tips.  After a few days, I was surprised to find that no particular issue moved me enough to passionate advocacy.  I began questioning my dedication.  But thank God for therapy (which the author also recommends), hallelujah!  I had a breakthrough in session last week, wherein I realized that I am, actually, enough.  And I do actually affirm one key interest: Relationship.

Duh.

For me, it’s less about specific issues than it is about how they’re addressed.  While generally I favor a progressive social agenda, I abhor the entrenched, partisan, winner-takes-all attitude that infects our government operations and civic discourse.  I also deplore the rhetorical, broad brush generalizations that people make about one another, based only on how we voted or an oversimplified position on one issue.  I wrote about this recently, though I buried the thesis in what should have been a separate discussion of healthcare reform.

Looking back, of course, relationship and communication have always been my core concerns—I launched this blog specifically to discuss them, for crying out loud!  Over and again I find myself in the role of mediator—between family members, Chinese and American culture, conventional versus alternative medicine, and between patients, physicians, and the healthcare system.  My whole life I have practiced, sometimes under duress, the art of mutual understanding and negotiation.  Maybe I’ve just been training for this moment in history.

How Talking Politics Is Like Eating Healthy

We could all learn and apply better practices.  We know the theories—more vegetables, less judgment, whole grains instead of processed, less name-calling and more calm, reasoned debate.  But so often the opposite happens:  junk food, sugary sodas,  pointless shouting and blaming—especially on social media.  We feel ashamed and frustrated at the futility of it all.  We figure screw it, I’ll never change (and neither will they), so why bother, it’s too much work, and anyway, it’s not the end of the world.

Never mind that your rising blood pressure and glucose accelerate the formation of atherosclerotic plaque each passing year, and that your risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke escalates exponentially as a result.  Never mind that the less we engage one another in meaningful ways, the farther apart we drift and the more we allow the most extreme factions of our parties to run the show.

The Challenge

In the coming weeks, I will share my own key learnings on healthier engagement practices.  I make no claims to have all the solutions, and I do not mean to be preachy.  These posts will serve mainly as reminders to myself, aspirational pieces to hold my own feet to the fire, marshaling my highest ideals of thought and behavior.  I will try to minimize promoting my own political views, though I suspect they will surface one way or another.  I hope you will follow with an open mind, and a heart that yearns to connect with the best of humanity, especially in those with whom you may disagree.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  It’s our relationships that save us.  Right now they desperately need repairs.  So let’s get to work.