Category Archives: Dialogue

What Icebergs and Conflict Share In Common

News headlines are sagging under the weight and bulge of people in conflict. North Americans are conflicted over — well, I don’t need to list all we’re in disagreement about because it’s front and center stage global news.

It seems that, like South Carolina’s 1 in a 1,000 year rain, the U.S., if not much of the global community is journeying through an epochal period of polarization.

Given widespread conflict and disagreements of perspective, opinion, and value:

How can two or more people with significant dissimilarities attain a respectful, dignified and trusting understanding of one another?

Three days post-Umpqua Community College’s mass shooting I re-shared a Facebook posting of a picture of Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver with his hands out and his palms open, expressing what I assume is incredulousness. The caption above his head read, “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb, and we all have to take our shoes off at the airport,” and the bottom-concluding caption read, “31 school shootings since Columbine and no change in the regulation of guns.”

One friend decided this was an opportune moment to inject his opinion on this “stupidest of comparisons.”

Other friends weighed in, too, mostly anti his perspective. Wasting no time, I simply responded that his opinion seemed to derive from Fox News (“Bullshit Mountain” as Jon Stewart and The Daily Show re-named the network), and that he should practice his own advice on “thinking,” because all he seemed to be communicating was raucous vitriol.

An example of how not to develop trust and build bridges of understanding!

To my shame I singularly presumed ignorance and negative intent on his part, particularly given my past association. I responded only to his words and my perception of his attitude and intent; ignoring formative and unknown-to-me influences that most certainly shaped his worldview and values. And I sought to win the battle of opinion with minimal expenditure of effort and inconvenience.

Like icebergs, whose above water visibility reflects only one-ninth its real size, so, too, words, both in ordinary conversation and especially during conflict, reflect only a fraction of what co-antagonists think and feel.

As Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most demonstrates, people’s unspoken, invisible-to-the-eye feelings are “usually where the real action is. Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their core about feelings. Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music.”

Conflicts or difficult conversations, therefore, are seldom if ever about “getting the facts straight.” They’re about differing perceptions, assumptions, interpretations, and values, with all sides each and on every occasion contributing something to the discord no matter who might legitimately be “most wrong.”

Conflict generates, perpetuates and escalates around accusations of blame, which in turn threatens punishment, which naturally, then, meets with save my (own) bacon denial and counter accusations.

Sadly we default to negative and embittered exchanges, rather than inquisitive discourse that seeks to imaginatively understand each other’s life story—aka, the formative experiences, persons and information that we don’t have access to, yet which shaped and influenced our antagonist’s worldview, interpretation of sensory input, and his/her subsequent words, actions or beliefs.

Funny story. When my middle child was six she shared a bedroom and a bunk bed with her older sister, “Mana.” One night she was lying on her top bunk ranting and wailing because of some disciplining “act of parenting.” After a prolonged period of wailing, their room went silent, after which a quiet, quivering, six-year-old voice asked her sister, “Mana, what was I crying about?” After her older sister reminded her why she had been crying, loud crying again ensued!”

Translated: Conflict and blame take on lives of their own, when, in fact, often times and over time the precipitating facts and feelings are forgotten.

To minimize conflict and difficult conversations, Stone, Patton and Heen argue that we should intentionally and by disciplined practice, move away from a “message delivery” (i.e., “I’m right and you’re to blame”) stance to a “learning stance”—one in which we “walk around the sculpture of our own feelings and observe it from different angles.”

That is, we need to become more adept at asking thoughtful questions when conflict occurs and emotions are heightened. Questions that seek to imagine oneself in the other person’s life story. Questions that seek to understand one’s own inner, vulnerable, and complex emotions and sense of identity.

Or as Chapter Two aptly summarizes it: “Stop Arguing About Who’s Right” and instead “Explore Each Other’s Story.” Regrettably, most disagreements—including that of my classmate—center on proving “I’m right and you’re wrong”; a heated exchange of conclusions, rather than an openness to hearing one another’s stories.

Listening and expressing feelings are critical tasks during conflict. When feelings are expressed, the urge to blame subsides. Ironically, an inability to listen well to one’s adversary is symptomatic of an inability or unwillingness to express one’s own feelings well. Why is this so?

“Good listening requires an open and honest curiosity about the other person, and a willingness and ability to keep the spotlight on them. Buried emotions draw the spotlight back to us. Instead of wondering, ‘How does what they are saying make sense?’ and ‘Let me try to learn more,’ we have a record playing in our mind that is stuck in the groove of our own feelings: ‘I’m so angry s/he treated me like that!’”

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Filed under conflict resolution, Dialogue, Life, Perspective, Relationships

Presidential Wannabes, How About Giving Us Tangible, Optimistic and Inclusive Competing Narratives

A young, black South African cashier took a second glance at my unusual looking Southwest Airline Visa card. We struck up a conversation with me informing her that I once lived in Johannesburg and had returned for a two-week holiday. With a tired and bewildered look she sighed, answering an unasked question, “The only good thing about South Africa is the weather!” For sure, it promised to be a sunny Highveld day with a temperature near 70F, yet given my past overwhelmingly positive experience of the rainbow nation’s peoples I queried, “Only the weather? What about the people?” She deeply gave thought to my question before again despondently responding, “No, only the weather.

A country of 53 million, almost twice the size of my home state of Texas, South Africa is a nation grappling not only to come to peaceful resolution of the residual yet resistant-to-change affects of apartheid, but also to lessen an eon’s old pandemic of violent crime, while simultaneously struggling with the challenges of the rapid onset of a 1980s infectious and second national pandemic—HIV/AIDS.

South Africa’s 2013/14 statistics reflect a sobering daily reported human suffering tally from violent crime: 180 sexual assaults, 50 murders and equal number attempted murders, and 510 assaults with the intent to inflict grievously bodily harm. It was easy, then, for me to be sympathetic to a young woman’s national dismay—particularly when it’s all too statistically likely that she, herself, spoke as either violent crime or AIDS victim. During my family’s 15 year South Africa residence, we had direct and indirect personal linkage with about 15 to 20 murders, and 40 to 60 assaults.

In terms of daily human suffering from HIV/AIDS, if memory serves me even marginally well, I recall the daily infection / death rate to have been in the region of 1500/1000 as of mid-2010.

It’s no secret that those who suffer most by violent crime and AIDS in South Africa are its majority black populace, who, contrary to a too common, wrongful, and high (often “Christian”) moralist, largely Western mindset see AIDS as divine retribution for gross sexual improprieties—or, as I’ve regrettably heard on more than one occasion, “Africans failure to ‘condomize.’” Egg on mostly white faces, however, because HIV/AIDS was an import to South Africa – mostly likely from two (white) homosexual South African Airway stewards, who contracted the disease during a trip to the United States’ West Coast (see Shattered Dreams? An Oral History of the South African AIDS Epidemic, by Gerald Oppenheimer and Ronald Bayer).

To be fair – and more hopeful – during my two weeks in-country I went on to hear more upbeat and hopeful remarks about South Africa’s present and its future, from mostly young adult South Africans, who either idealistically spoke of being part of a national effort to build a new democratic South Africa, or energized by the economic prospect of easy and abundant profit for those with access to cash and credit.

Since my brief exchange with the cashier four weeks ago, her bleak perspective has provoked me to ask myself, “What, if anything, is different or good about my own United States of America?

It’s a more difficult question than you might imagine because I’m a so-called Third Culture Kid, who grew up, then worked in Africa, yet a U.S. citizen as well. Of my own admission I’m bicultural, “African-American.” Although my birth certificate and passport are stamped with the U.S. official seal, my worldview is decidedly and preferentially African – especially Africa’s underlying ethos of Ubuntu, in which persons, communities and relationships are of far more importance than individualism and consumerism.

It’s a difficult question, too, because like The New York Times contributing op-ed writer, Arthur C Brooks, in his recent piece “We Need Optimists,” I’m more realist than optimist, which makes me an optirealist, I suppose. I know you’re thinking, “There’s no such thing as a realist, only optimists and pessimists,” but I disagree. A pessimist singularly perceives negative.

I recall the humorous story of two hunters (remember: I’m from a gun loving culture). The optimist owned a retriever dog, which he was sure would be able to win over his pessimist friend. The three were sitting camouflaged and crouched among the dense lakeside reeds when some ducks flew by. The friends rose up, shot, and watched a duck fall. The optimist could hardly contain his excitement when he instructed his dog to “fetch.” The dog dove into the lake, but incredibly, instead of swimming out to the bird, she walked on top of the water, gently retrieving the bird. After a moment or two, the pessimist exclaimed, “I see your dog doesn’t know how to swim!

As to the at times unreal, unhelpful positivism of an optimist . . . well, let me share Brooks’ opening paragraph, which makes light of those who share in common optimistic spouses: “My wife, Ester, and I had just endured a difficult parent-teacher conference for one of our teenage children. It was a grades issue. The ride home was tense, until Ester broke the silence. ‘Think of it this way,’ she said, ‘At least we know he’s not cheating.’”

I’m near overwhelmed at times by what Brooks describes as the United States’ “environment of competing pessimisms” or “competing pessimists.”

Pessimists are distinguished by their negative view of people. People are liabilities to be managed and controlled, burdens and threats to be minimized. Pessimists utilize fear and anger to solicit and arouse support.

A positive, more optimistic perspective and vision is politically less appealing. Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, is the quintessential model of dour politics’ mass appeal with a sour mood public, as is FOX News.

As Brooks persuasively argues, however, as a nation we are and will pay “a steep price for our politicians’ choosing the dark side,” which, ironically, is a missed strategic advantage for competing candidates. Why? Optimism is not only a highly esteemed character disposition—a proven core trait of successful executives—but also an outlook associated with some of our nation’s most popular presidents, e.g., Reagan and Clinton.

Optimism requires hard work to be effective. That is to say, leaders, especially, must be willing to risk becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. For example, “A positive vision requires the hard work of winning over new friends, which means going where politicians have not been invited, and enduring less-than-adoring crowds.” That is a much more demanding and riskier task than merely regurgitating (sorry for this distasteful yet apt analogy) calloused and hardline perspectives, which one’s followers already hold to anyway.

I regret that I could not convince the cashier that South Africa’s greatest strength and asset is its people in all their diversity—not its weather.

I believe, like Brooks, that people the world over are grappling with a “growing mainstream depression” about their respective nations’ futures, yet simultaneously hoping that public leadership would turn from their competing pessimisms to “a true competition of optimistic visions for a better future.”

In other words, stop telling us what and whom you’re against. Instead compete for the prize of most compelling (transformative) narrative—which, contrary to politicians’ over-inflated egos, will rely not on their singular ability to affect change, but on a belief in and reliance on the goodness, potential and resiliency of each nation’s citizenry.

Politicians the world over should take a queue from teachers, my postgraduate mentor included, who began each new university-level class by standing in front of his students, sweeping the room with his eyes, pausing to catch each person’s gaze, raising both hands in the air, passionately and with zero degree uncertainty declaring the following in a rich South African accent:

Class, you are not merely human beings . . . You are human becomings!”

It’s what Adam Saenz spoke autobiographically of to returning-to-school teachers in “From Jail to Harvard: Why Teachers Change the World”:

“In a few days you’ll stand in front of a group of students and I can almost guarantee that there will be at least one ‘Adam Saenz’ there, a kid who has potential and doesn’t know it, a soul who could change the world a little bit if they could only get the right instruction and encouragement to lift them out of their false sense of who they believe themselves to be.”

Amidst our own national gloomy environment, let’s individually and collectively commit to support whichever candidate(s) proffers the most tangible, transformative, optimistic and inclusive of national narratives—narratives of what we can individually and as a nation become.

#HopeAndBecoming.

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Filed under Africa, Death and Dying, Dialogue, Diversity, Inequity, Leadership, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Relationships, Success, Violence

White Supremacy, Black Experience: A Lesson In Listening

“Americans make choices constantly as they try to navigate through the racial landscape. And their first choice is how they listen. Blacks and whites do not listen well to one another. They infer, assume, deduce, imagine, and otherwise miscommunicate. They give each other little grace and allow small room for benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is exceedingly difficult. Nor do blacks and whites listen well to themselves as they stigmatize, derogate, slur, slight, and otherwise offend. . . . It takes practice to learn to listen.”  (A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler, ©1997)

With 36 years Africa experience, most of it in a relatively volatile, post-colonial and post-apartheid context, you would think of all white males I would know better.

My wrong?

Among a diverse group of professionals I recently spoke analytically to the contentious topic of white supremacy, or its equally bitter-tasting kin—white privilege.

My cerebral statements understandably met immediate (black) resistance and reaction. Understandably, because my colleagues had been sharing painful personal and past experiences of racially tinged or infused injustices, and of a local city’s white establishment’s historical misuse of political and economic power in disenfranchising entire African-American communities.

Some of my friends contended that white supremacy, aka, institutionalized and/or racist white power structures will be eradicated globally within a relatively short time period.

Instead of simply listening to my friends’ pained narratives, or vocalizing my solidarity with them against past and present social injustices, I intellectualized what up to that point had been a mostly emotionally laden discussion.

At the time, my “invisible, weightless knapsack of accustomed white privilege,” as Shipler coins it, processed our dialogue with two rational thoughts—

First, “How can we talk of eradicating white supremacy, when it’s both a local and global belief that people hold, specifically, a belief that whites are superior to all others different, and therefore entitled—for the betterment of society—to control the mechanisms of power?”

And, secondly, “I agree. We can and should dislodge unjust white socioeconomic and political power structures, such as occurred with slavery America and apartheid South Africa, but we’ll never eradicate white supremacy, or any other color of supremacist belief, as my colleagues seemed insistent on.

Thinking the best of each other, I’m sure my black colleagues knew I wasn’t advocating for white supremacy or arguing against efforts to unseat bigoted power structures, just as I knew they weren’t naive to think supremacist thought could be annihilated.

Perhaps a greater sensitivity and awareness of our respective cultural differences might have mediated our group’s differences of opinion. At least for me, anyway.

How?

By reminding me that lack of passion on my part, or a mere intellectualizing or pondering of social injustices, will not communicate support or understanding.

Whether any part true or simply another racial generalization, I’ve read somewhere that passion, emotion, the ability “to stir up” are traditionally valued traits for many African-Americans—perhaps a survival tool during the slavery era—explaining in part, perhaps, the appeal of the rapper, the preacher, the impassioned politician.

Regrettably, only in retrospect did I see that my lack of passion, and my mere intellectualizing of an issue so close to many of my black colleagues’ life experiences, simply communicated (white) insensitivity to and self-denial of the persistent, everyday realities of scores of millions of historically disenfranchised and displaced people in the U.S. and around the world.

While I regret my misstep, I don’t lament risking encounter and dialogue. As Shipler rightly notes, “The journey does not have to be a (white) guilt trip; it is just an encounter with the facts of life.” Dialogue—talking and talking and talking—opens new “pathways to closeness” among people and cultures different. Each person must LISTEN to the other, however.

 

 

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Filed under Africa, Dialogue, Diversity, Inequity, Life, Loss, Perspective, Prejudice, Race, Relationships