If America is broken, it has been for some time. Our need for safety on whatever side of the dialectic with which we agree keeps us from reaching across the aisle in our politics and across the fence in our neighborhoods. As societal complexity increases there appears to be an even greater need for an “other” on which to pin the blame for our national and global woes. We just can’t seem to understand why anyone would think “that way.”
In creating the “other” we conveniently create a scapegoat that allows us to shirk our own part in the great unraveling. I say, ENOUGH!
If we want to make America great again, we will need to stand together. We will need to roll up our sleeves and work side-by-side to uncover our shared values, understand what drives each other’s choices, and work towards a common good on multiple fronts. We need to shut off our computers, televisions, and radios and go back to a tool that past generations of Americans used to fight for truth and justice, for all.
What is that tool you might ask? A tractor? A gun? A sewing machine? No.
The tool I’m referring to is conversation, the kind that occurs face-to-face. Perhaps it’s only wishful thinking but it seems in times past that American’s used to have conversations with each other, around a kitchen table, or on a porch, or in a living room. Conversations with neighbors were about difficult subjects like slavery, taxes, war, or women’s suffrage; they’d have discussions even when opinions differed. Americans would share thoughts and ideas in common places where people could come together to talk, tell stories, and create relationships of understanding, even if the understanding was that there were agreed upon differences.
In a recent conversation I had with musician, author, and master of difficult dialogues, Libby Roderick, we explored ways that American’s can come together again as individuals to rid ourselves of the shadow “other.” It will require having difficult dialogues. It will require exploration of topics on which we may not see eye to eye. But this is the way to healing and the way to make our great nation whole again.
What does this have to do with men in midlife you might ask? A lot actually. As men in midlife we often hold leadership roles within our community, at our workplaces, within professional organizations, non-profits, and places of worship. As leaders we need to step up and initiate these conversations rather than stick to the safe talk about the weather or sports.
If you feel called, below are three things to consider when starting your own journey of understanding through conversations with your family, friends, or neighbors.
Clarify the ground rules
It is important to provide a set of mutually agreeable ground rules before having a conversation. Such rules increase the likelihood of civil discourse and reduce potential for an unraveling of civility. Having ground rules is an important step to build a safe environment for people to engage openly and fully. These ground rules can be developed prior to the conversation and can be found online (such as these excellent examples from New Hampshire’s Rye Public Library and LivingRoom Conversations). You might also begin a conversation by asking each participant to share a couple of things they need to create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.
Share experiences, not opinions or positions
When having a potentially difficult conversation the goal is to get an understanding of how a person has arrived at their position or opinion. By understanding the unique situation of the other participants you understand their story and their human experience. You get a sense of their underlying shared humanity. The goal of conversation is understanding, not to convince others of your position or to convert them to your perspective.
Seek understanding through clarifying questions. To be clear, “What the f*ck were you thinking?” and “Why are you such a spineless whiner?” are not clarifying questions. What is it about their family history, their social status, their life challenges that have defined their values and made them who they are? What is it about their unique life experiences that might unlock greater understanding of possible shared goals? This understanding might then allow for collaborative work towards mutual goals for common good.
The word “discussion” has its roots in Latin and means “to shake apart.” When we approach each other with curiosity and civility we can shake up our preconceived notions of the “other” and piece together a reality based on personal story and mutual understanding. Our country is made stronger by our differences, but only when they are understood as coming from our fellow Americans not some faceless “other” who can be easily vilified and condemned as an enemy.
Stand strong together America. Let’s start the discussion!
Previously published on Midlife and Thriving
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