What if Yoda sang love songs? Does it not brighten your day just thinking about it?
Who holds you up? Who holds you accountable? Do they do it with love? If you’re lucky like me and the same people do all three, you possess a rare gift. I learned this again today and the realization sustained me, even through some hard conversations and decisions.
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“I feel like garbage after I talk to her,” a friend told me today. We commiserated around our mutual acquaintance, Dolores*. Dolores constantly focuses on the negative—how we could always do this or that better, how this or that thing is never right. She nit-picks and dissects. It’s hard to be around Dolores; her positive to negative interaction ratio is 0 to infinity—or at least it feels that way.
We like Apollo* better. He consistently notices and shows us the good we do. He points out our strengths to others. And it’s not lip service—he truly sees, appreciates, and acknowledges how we contribute—we feel his sincerity and gratitude. His ratio approaches 5 to 1, which is an important sign (driver?) of healthy relationships.
And Apollo’s 1’s, what are those about? He tests us, makes us uncomfortable sometimes. We clash with him sometimes on how to walk the talk, on the methods we choose to manifest our mission. But because our relationships are healthy, because we know our ties are stronger than our tensions, we can negotiate in good faith. We challenge one another to live up to our ideals—to defend our methods–we hold each other accountable, and we all benefit.
So, what stands out most to you these days? Surging COVID cases and hospital admissions? SCOTUS aberrations? Election tension and drama? A sense of doom and nihilism about the future of humanity? Hope requires ever more effort to acquire and maintain, no?
So many people complain about how divided we are, how the country is headed toward civil war… How we can’t talk to our friends who disagree… As if there nothing we can do about it. But they attack my position, they just yell and scream, they get so emotional, I hear. It’s too hard to talk, so I abandon my relationships that used to bring joy and connection. And I blame the other; I take no responsibility myself.
What’s the phrase, Be the Change you wish to see in the world?
Maybe we could do this a little more?
And then elect people who can lead by a much better example? What would that be like?
Yes, it’s work. So. Much. Hard. Work. And it never ends.
We are all full participants here–the current state of things is the logarithmic sum of all of our relationships—the good, bad, ugly and all. For whom are we waiting to save us? How much longer will we each play the hapless victim?
We ALL share responsibility.
But it’s too hard, I hear. Yes, I know. I’m sorry, there is no way around this. And it’s okay! We can do hard things! Humans have dominated our environment, defied nature, and flourished for generations. And yet, we somehow still succumb to our most primitive and self-defeating tribal instincts—how fascinating! Sometimes I really do feel like we will drive ourselves to self-destructive extinction in my lifetime. But every day I wake up is another opportunity to avert this fate.
And it is hard! Every day I bite my tongue, moderate my thoughts and words so as not to slide down the rabbit hole of despair and denigration. I still commit ‘passionate trash mouth’ as a friend calls it—I often follow “Be the Change” with “Own Your Shit.” I’m not perfect. But my mission is worthy and I pursue it with fervor.
It doesn’t have to be anything grand or far-reaching. We can just remember a few things, for starters, to get us through whatever comes next—to exercise our own agency, each of us, to shape it all for the better.
The Opposition Will Not Be Vanquished. Neither will they stop opposing. Polarities are necessary and healthy in life. Both conservative and progressive ideals serve the common good. Competing and parallel goals and values will always co-exist—it’s a paradox—and the more we can accept this necessary and inextricable relationship, the sooner we can move with the push/pull flow rather than against it.
I lean progressive; you lean conservative. Rather than mutual categorical conquest, we can seek dynamicbalance—of power and goals, among other things. Life with other humans is a dance; it requires attunement and differentiation, give and take, and mutual cooperation for us all to thrive. Extreme ad hominem rhetoric and arrogant, self-righteous displays of disrespect fracture our relational foundations. Cracks then propagate widely and we find ourselves here, on the verge of violence and social disintegration.
Find and Acknowledge the Kernel of Truth. Life coaching taught me one of the most important lessons in life: Everybody’s right, and only partially. When the opposition criticizes you, your position, or the outcomes of ‘your side’s’ policies, do you validate the partial truth of that criticism? Do you even see it? Or do you maintain that your side is always right, and the opposition is always wrong? Give and take, remember? Admitting a flaw does not mean invalidating an entire ethos or platform. Complex adaptive issues cannot be solved or even managed with sweeping and yet oversimplified, sound-bitten solutions. I acknowledge the imperfection(s) in my program. And, my intentions and objectives are important and worthy. How can I learn from your challenging perspective and make mine better, more accountable and resilient, in service of more people? What small steps can we take toward mutual understanding and collaboration, rather than bickering and stalemate? How is my opposition actually my ally?
It Starts With Me. Stop bystanding—complaining and whining like a spectator. Rather, upstand for civil discourse—engage. When someone yells at/near me in criticism and contempt, I can yell back, give as good as I get. I can get defensive, stonewall, or disengage. These are the horsemen of the relationship apocalypse, as John Gottman describes them (read about the antidotes here). Instead of fight, flight, or freeze, practice tend and befriend. Acknowledge people’s emotions and core values on all sides. Empathize. Verbalize understanding. Voice your hurt feelings and invite the other to understand your personal perspective. Tell your story. Invite others’ stories and listen wholeheartedly. Scary, right? Vulnerable. Brave.
This moment calls us forth to peel off the heavy armor of hostility, binary thinking, and tribalism. We are called to meet the ‘opposition’ disarmed and disarming, offering humility and compassion, on the open field of shared humanity and common goals. We must advocate for our causes repeatedly with ardently calm and patient logos as well as pathos, and hear the others’ retort, calm and patient or not, with open hearts and a learning attitude. It is up to each of us to lead by example.
We cannot ‘beat’ them; we may or may not join them; and we can always meet them. Negotiation is always possible, and like in all relationships, we must all show up in good faith, and have some faith in the each other. We must commit and live up to our own trustworthiness first.
These are all skills we can learn, practice, and master. There are models all around us. We only have to look, listen, and emulate. If you’re interested in more formal training and practice, check out Braver Angels and Better Arguments. I’m signed up for another training session in December. Practice makes better.
Happy Fall, my friends! Are the leaves near you as brilliant and wakening as they are by me?
This morning I had another Zoom call with my Braver Angels pals Mande and Sharon—we have met monthly since soon after the pandemic’s onset. I come away feeling seen, valued, and loved every single time. And we hatch plans to change the world, too—stay tuned. 😉
Mande’s rock star sister hosts “Jeffersonian Dinners,” where friends gather and discuss a meaningful question—a modern day salon—oh, be still my heart. This week’s question, for the Jeffersonians and me alike: “After the election, how can we come together?”
Coming together now means connecting and healing. It means committing to this as work, no more blaming and playing victim. It means each of us owning our part, because we are all active participants in all of our relationships, and the current state of our culture is the sum total of all of our complex, inextricable relationships. Coming together fosters peace, which I think we all yearn for, especially now.
I believe we cannot die at peace unless we live in peace first, and peace must be cultivated. A life of peace necessarily embraces openness, curiosity, humility, vulnerability, patience, and generosity. How lucky I am to know so many models in these domains, like Sharon, who teaches these exact skills—she helps us train. It’s like prehab—getting the body healthy through clean eating and good sleep before surgery. Then we build on this foundation in rehab, increasing range of motion as well as both core stability and mobility—think of this as a metaphor for interpersonal encounters and relationships. It doesn’t just come, even if you’re a natural, and times like this will test your talent as well as your skill. “If you don’t have the practice then you can’t show up consistently,” Sharon wisely explains. So what are the practices?
How do you make people feel?
By now you must recognize Maya Angelou’s simple and profound words: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In these coming weeks and months—actually for the rest of our lives—what if we each attended more to this? What if we all take responsibility for at least half of how people feel after they encounter us? And what if we all committed to making every encounter as positive as possible for the other person, ahead of ourselves? Tonight I will review only two of the myriad practices for pre- and re-hab’ing our ailing culture.
What are you already doing to make things better?
Listen More Deeply—Much More Deeply
Listen through the words and beyond your own head.
The most superficial listening level focuses on what I think of what someone is saying. I listen to refute and proclaim, to be right, to dominate, to dismiss, and maybe even shame. Conversations and relationships go south and disintegrate quickly in this scenario. Yuck.
We can connect, however, when we start listening holistically to the words, imperfect and inarticulate as they may be, to hear what people think. How do they perceive, understand, and rationalize (we all rationalize)? Where, intellectually, do their opinions and positions originate? This kind of listening can lead to truly curious questioning and when done well, to important insights and deeper understanding.
At the third listening level, where we truly connect personally, we hear how people feel. Humans are fundamentally emotional beings with the capacity for rational thought, NOT logically thinking beings who happen to have feelings. If I’m able to hear emotions, then recognize, identify, relate to, and acknowledge them, I diffuse and de-escalate. This is often the first moment of deep connection in an encounter.
Lastly, listen for core values. When conversations escalate and we suffer emotional hijack, often some core value (eg honesty, fairness, integrity, equality) has been violated. When I recognize this I can then relate and connect, and this mutual understanding almost automatically further de-escalates a conflict.
Elevate Your Opponent’s Humanity
Some years ago driving to work, I saw a young man, maybe in his twenties, cross the street in front of me. He looked fit, dressed casually, a little scruffy on the face. Suddenly I saw him not as a pedestrian, or an office worker, or a fellow Chicagoan. I saw him as a mother’s son. I wondered to myself, is she thinking of you right now? I bet she’s proud, no matter what you do. I hope you carry her love around with you all the time. I hope it sustains you. I hope that for my own children.
Listen to Simon Sinek interview Bob Chapman on his podcast about leadership. Chapman, a father of 6, likens leadership to parenting. His Why is to make people feel cared for rather than used. He sees each of his employees as someone’s precious child, and thus someone to be valued and loved, just like he would want his own kids to be treated.
How do we do this? We recognize people’s strengths. We acknowledge their core values, we validate their feelings. We respect their opinions and engage in disagreement with understanding and not ad hominem attacks. We aim for 5 positive interactions/exchanges for every negative one, to cultivate relationships of deep trust and safety.
What if we did this with the people who disagree with us? If we imagine debating someone with each of our parents watching, how would that change the dynamic? If we truly cared for each other as members of one human family, how much better could this all really be?
I’m thinking hard (and soft) about how best to use my time, energy, creativity, relationships, and writing in these coming months. We’ve dug ourselves into a great, big, muddy (sh*tty) hole, yes. And we absolutely can dig ourselves out. But it will take all of us. I’ll try to keep reminding us.
The only way out is through. The best way through is together.