Our valley has recently hosted a couple of important grassroots efforts to help us learn new tools to promote civil discourse on challenging topics. I’m hopeful these efforts will bear fruit in coming months and years as we deal with difficult issues that tend to polarize us. Wouldn’t it be great if our valley became a model of working together to understand each other and respect differing viewpoints? We all can learn from the experience of others.
Connie Bean, a former educator and administrator, has developed a very powerful approach called “Talk to Me” and has been testing it with groups throughout the valley.
Bean developed a very simple and straightforward approach to engaging in discussions on hot button issues, like politics and religion. Bean tells me she’s getting positive reviews from the conversations she has initiated.
Her approach is elegantly simple: Gather a group of friends representing differing perspectives on an issue and have a dialogue that allows each person to share their beliefs and what life experiences led them to that point of view. The rest of the group listens attentively and, after the person is finished, asks questions to gain greater understanding. The intent, said Bean, is to part as friends and respect the fact that people have differing perspectives and that those differences don’t have to mean creating enemies.
Bean spoke to the local Republican Women’s Lunch in early April to share not only the Talk to Me process, but also to share the story of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two friends who had radically different views and approaches and had a difficult friendship but one that ultimately survived.
Their relationship was explored in the book “Friends Divided” by Gordon Wood. Interestingly, John Adams faced some issues that still are debated today, including immigration and the role of the press.
The second local effort to allow people to build greater capacity to engage in discourse on challenging issues was led by a group of religious leaders in the valley, including James Aalgard of Grace Lutheran Church, Laura Shennum of the Cascade Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and Frances Twigg of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
Participants went through a series of five-week conversations developed by award-winning broadcaster and the founder of On Being, a podcast and blog devoted to “pursuing deep thinking and social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together.”
I was a participant in one group and facilitated another during the five-weeks of small-group explorations on topics that ranged from political civility, journalism and compassion and listening beyond life and choice.
I discovered some good tools to explore differing viewpoints in the course of the discussions. Tippett is a master interviewer and a deep thinker. One of her techniques is to ask individuals to share something that troubles them about their own point of view and then share something that they value about the perspective of a person with an opposite viewpoint.
Building our capacity to listen thoughtfully and acknowledge people of differing views rather than summarily rejecting their views is a skill worth developing. It’s a discipline that all of us could use.
If we’re going to keep this country from splitting apart, it’s going to take communities like ours developing ways to disagree vehemently on topics without losing respect for others.
I’m proud to live in a valley where people are willing to exert themselves in hopes of understanding others better. Continuing to learn from others, testing our views with an open mind and being committed to community success is a powerful antidote to the isolation and rage that all too often characterize our political discourse.