I have also realized that most people can’t talk about them without THIS happening.
I’ve tried both. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t shake these two truths:
TRUTH ONE: Our common humanity makes up the largest proportion of who we are.
Even the people we feel the most different from, are remarkably similar to us in the grand scale. We are each created in the divine image of God. We each have hearts that skip a beat when granted unexpected kindness. We each have hearts that bottom out when we break connection with someone we love. We each taste the bitter flavor of shame when we are cast as the “other”. We each propel into self-protection when we feel like we are under attack. We each crave love. And the vast proportion of us each genuinely want to create a better world.
If, this election cycle, you have begun to feel like the world is made up of 50% people like you and 50% people who are completely desperately “other” at their core, that is an illusion. And a destructive one at that. It belies everything that is true of our common humanity. Politics has a tendency to magnify this illusion because it gives us a forced choice between two polar extremes. And faced with such a choice, our brains have a neurological tendency to flee toward certainty… to unconsciously double-down on one side or the other to help make the world feel clearer and simpler. The political process preys on these tendencies and fuels the masses. Brene Brown said about politics, “It’s the 80/20 principle. 20% of the voices (10% from each side of the aisle) are creating 80% of the hostilities”.
But the reality is, we cannot toss the people we don’t understand aside, even if it makes our decisions simpler. It ultimately never works well for us. (Perhaps that is evident in our current national landscape!) As I write this I am reminded of a passage in the Bible that talks about this love-it or hate-it truth, that we are not able to eschew parts of our humanity. We are in this thing together, whether we like it or not. Here, Paul is talking about this principle as applied to the church, where each person is a “part” of that body of people:
“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable, we treat with special honor… God has put the body together… so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it”. (1 Corinthians 12:21-26)
Can you imagine if this were embodied in our national dialogue? What if even when we disagree we still allow ourselves to see the suffering of the other, and walk with empathy? What if we refuse to create a special “I-don’t-need-you” place in our brain for the people we don’t understand?
TRUTH TWO: Constructive dialogue with people who believe differently than us is a lost art… and one of our greatest tools.
Belief #1 is not a “kum-bah-yah” sense of unity that shrugs, and says “We are all one... so don’t rock the boat. everything's fine”. It does not advocate that we simply ignore the things we disagree on. Or avoid talking about them to people we disagree WITH. The fact is… the only way to SEE our common humanity is to LISTEN to humanity. To tune into people who seem like the “other” and dig till you find the child of God in front of you. And then row forward from there.
This kind of dialogue is a critical practice for every single one of us. Because the world changes every day. You can see this even in your very own household. The world doesn’t look the same as it did yesterday. And not a single one of us can see the whole picture. We each have a unique vantage point. If we are going to be able to move forward and meet the challenges this new day, this new season brings, we need to seek out the vantage points we do not understand.
There is a time for decisive action, a time for firm boundaries, a time for building a movement. But even alongside those things, we will always NEED constructive dialogue with people who are different than us. So to that end... here are:
13 "Rules of Engagement" for discussing things that matter without your head blowing upMost of my rules of engagement are based on these two primary principles I hold for myself which are listed as #1 and #2.
1) Refuse to make caricatures of humans who are different than you
A caricature is an exaggeration of another person or type of person that magnifies their most striking or unflattering characteristics and minimizes their humanity. It takes a multifaceted human and diminishes them to a symbol to be used for your purposes. For me, I know I am doing this when I begin to see people as "other" and they start to look all the same in my mind… like poorly written one-dimensional movie characters.
2) Make space for growth.
This is going to sound obvious, but I forget it sometimes. None of us knows all the things the moment we’re born. This thing we call life is a messy life-long process of learning. Think about something you know now about life (what to say in certain settings, insight into what others are going through) that you didn’t know ten years ago. My guess is it took you exposure and time to learn it. You can’t just speak it into being instantly in someone else’s life. They need to make their way around the learning curve. Your voice is just one dot around their learning curve. So assume that the bold statement someone just made may not be how they always feel, and may fade in the face of new information or space to grow. PLEASE… at least do this for my sake... Because I make bold statements all the time that I later learn myself out of.
Speaking of which, I’ve learned to offer this same “space for growth” for myself. This means I don’t shame myself for missteps. The moment we are too afraid to make a mistake or believe the wrong thing or vote for the wrong thing, is often the moment we dig in our heels and embark on a life-long process of proving we’re right. Expect new information, changes in your context, and evolving maturity in your path ahead. We’ve all got a long way to go.
3) Enjoy a real life human that you know and love who believes differently than you.
If I have to hold the tension of a real life human I love, I am much less likely to engage in caricatures. It doesn’t necessarily mean I believe they’re right on the topic at hand, but it helps me keep connected to their humanity and often see the issue with more depth. This means knowing when to take a break from talking about the things you disagree about and connect on a human level. If you are not willing to build relational bridges, your strong opinion loses credibility and power, and is more likely to have significant blind spots. It is also more likely to hurt people.
(Note: This does not mean to make yourself vulnerable to people who are abusive to you or who marginalize you, or who wound or minimize a personal area of trauma in your own life. It is valid and wise to set boundaries on this.)
4) Practice your faith beliefs rather than fashioning them into weapons
This is borrowed from Brene Brown, and I think it speaks beautifully for itself.
5) Do not name-call, shame, belittle or poke fun.
Make a firm boundary for yourself on this. Any impulse to do these things is a red flag that you are interacting with a caricature in your mind. Belittling language can be very subtle so be on the lookout. This kind of language makes you feel better (in the short term) but cuts off any actual influence you have with others.
7) Call out the best in people rather than trying to prove the worst.
Nine times out of ten if I believe that somewhere in a person’s heart is a desire for justice and goodness, I can seek it, find it, and invite it out of them. If I have “caricatured” them as “other”, I will tend to paint them into a shame-corner they can’t get out of, which only drives them further into a posture of defense.
6) Delineate unjust systems from unjust people.
There is real injustice in the world. There is real evil in the world. To deny evil and injustice is to perpetuate it. However, I choose to go into conversations believing that *many* people who perpetuate unjust or evil systems/cultures are so immersed in that system, it is like the air they breathe. It is incredibly difficult to see the air you breathe without help from outside that air space.
A simple quote from psychologist, Gordon Allport helped me hone this posture toward people. He differentiates a prejudgment as “reversible when exposed to new knowledge”, whereas, “a prejudice is actively resistant to all evidence that would unseat it.” I have been guilty of MANY prejudgments over my lifetime that I look back now and can’t believe I didn’t see clearly. Usually the “new knowledge” for me came in the form of getting a closer or richer picture of the people or situations I was pre-judging.
8) Apologize when you lose your center
You’ll screw up along the way if you engage in conversations like this. Expect that will happen on occasion and be ready to go back and put love where love got lost.
9) Limit your exposure to the “20%”
Remember the theory that 20% of the people drive 80% of the hostility? Give that 20% less power over you. Turn off the TV when the extreme or one-sided political rhetoric is on air. Avoid facebook articles or authors that don’t follow this list of “rules” well. Give the memes a rest. This is really hard to do. But over time, you can cull your input.
10) Get curious instead of repeating a party line
I've noticed this election season that I am receiving so much input into my brain (often from the "20%") that a "party line" can come rolling off my tongue about a political topic before it hits me that I actually have no real depth of knowledge about this particular area of politics. My justification is that the other person probably doesn't really either, and let's be honest, I don't want to give up my ground. But how boring is that? This is such a good time to pause and get curious. Here's what I've been trying lately: I ask myself (and often the other person) "If we had standing here with us a person who works right in the trenches of this topic area, and you could ask them anything, what would you ask them?" (like say, if the topic is homelessness, someone in the trenches would be someone who works hands-on with homeless individuals.) This sharpens critical thinking about the topic, puts us in a collaborative and constructive stance, and sometimes propels me or the other person to actually ASK those questions of the people in the trenches.
11) Dig until you find a common jumping-off point
Instead camping out on your disagreements... dig until you find a common value. Then row forward from there. Suddenly you are on the same team searching for truth together.
12) Tune into the heart
Behind most hostile conversations is a deeper fear or loss or hurt. Open your eyes to be able to see this. You might not be the right safe person for everyone, but for many you will. And if you ask genuinely how someone is feeling as they talk, you can often find the place in their spirit that is "rumbling". I operate on the belief that God is at work in the spirit of every person. I do not need to make this work happen. What I can do is provide a safe place for them to peel back the layers and tune into the "rumbling" in their Spirit; To find the loving God under the surface... hearing their hurts, speaking to their fears, inviting them to freedom.
13) Tune into your own heart and know when to take a break
Do this for yourself too. When you feel a drive to be “right”, look for the fear or hurt. It’s in there somewhere. Ask yourself why. Your first answer will probably focus on other people as the cause. It almost always does for me. Go a step deeper than that. Why is this pressing a button in you? What fears are stirring up in you? Explore it with a trusted friend. I often explore it in prayer.
This is what it looks like to “take the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly to take the speck of sawdust out of your brother’s eye”. Sometimes addressing your log means offering yourself kindness and space to grieve. Sometimes there has been legitimate hurt inflicted on you. You have been spun into pain and loss. It is okay to take a break from the world to attend to that place in your heart… that place that matters all on its own. Shut down facebook and talk to someone you trust. There are times (even long periods of time) to step back and take good care of yourself first, and leave the good fight for another day.
What are your “rules of engagement”? Any you’d add to this list? Any of these you might like to try out?
by Anna Hoesly