by Meradith Christensen
I have been consistently practicing yoga for over two years now. As I have observed the practice as a student from studio to studio, city to city, something that has stood out to me is the diversity of the people it attracts who are all coming to their mats seeking a similar experience; people from all walks of life, all shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds who come together for a common purpose. Oftentimes, I will have a particularly meaningful savasana--a typical final pose of a yoga practice intended to be meditative--and I’ll finish with tears in my eyes. I’ll get up to notice people I’ve never met before have tears streaming as well, and there we all are as strangers, allowing ourselves to experience an emotional release from the stresses of life and blubber there together in the dimly lit room. And each person belongs.
If there is any discipline that I’ve come across that epitomizes the principles of “welcoming and belonging” regardless of differences, it is yoga. Some of the participants in the studio are very new to the practice and serve the others in the room by allowing the fellow newcomers to feel they have a right to belong. Others are experienced yogis and serve as an inspiration to fellow participants of what one might aspire to with patience and discipline. Regardless of experience or skill level, the sense of openness and camaraderie is so very palpable. It’s one of my favorite parts!
While recognizing early on in my own practice the “warm and fuzziness” of yoga, as I became more mindful of my own inner dialogue, I was surprised and ashamed at times with how negative and unwelcoming I could be to myself. About a year into regularly attending classes, I started thinking, Wow, I’d love to teach this. I’d love to help others feel at home in this. I’d love to learn it well enough to teach it. However. Every time I had those thoughts, I would subconsciously and immediately shut them down. You could never teach this. You’re not nearly flexible enough. You’re not nearly agile or graceful enough. You don’t own enough matching sports bras and leggings. You are so not that type. Then I would sort of just accept that as truth and leave it alone.
Over months of practice, an interesting thing started happening inside of me. This punitive voice telling me what I couldn’t do started to make me mad. I started talking back to it and defending myself as to why I actually could teach yoga. On a side note--Don’t try to call me crazy and act like you’ve never held a full-fledged argument in your own mind! It can easily turn into a WWE style wrestling match in fact-- that's when things get really crazy.
In what areas of our life are we self-sabotaging? In what areas is our own inner dialogue making us feel unwelcome and unworthy and therefore holding us back? In our social circles? In romantic relationships? In the workplace? In church? In parenthood? On the ski slopes? On the quidditch field? How are we sabotaging our own dreams and aspirations? How are we standing in the way of our own sense of belonging?
Part of overcoming that negativity for me in this situation came with an acknowledgement that I have unique gifts and attributes to bring to the table. This applies to each of us in all of our endeavors. A favorite quote of mine by Karen Walrond is so beautiful in its simplicity but something we all need to hear and remember, especially as women: “There is room for you. Nobody can do it with your voice, with your experience, with your insight.” I’ve also come to learn from experience that conquering one fear in one area of life and “just doing it” even when--especially when-- we don’t feel like we’ve got what it takes or somehow like we don’t belong, can give us confidence to do more of what scares us in any area. Regardless of what the outcome is each time, it’s totally worth doing for that value alone. I’ve now led several yoga sessions and have many more to lead ahead of me. Sometimes I still look around the room and have those “everyone’s looking at me” moments, but then we just breathe. (Nice perk about leading a yoga session, you can gather your thoughts as long as you need by telling the participants to “just keep breathing,” wink, wink.) I’ll never be the most flexible instructor, but I have a knack for loving people and I find so much joy in sharing what I love with others. We don’t have to try to fit into a certain mold. Sometimes we just have to choose to believe we belong.
Meradith Christensen is a Provo resident for the past 15 years and is a wife and mother to four daughters and one son, ages 3-12. She graduated with a BA degree in Spanish and is a soon-to-be certified yoga instructor. Meradith loves to travel the world, loves meeting new people, and has a special flair for Latin America. She loves to sing, write, cook, tell stories, dance, impromptu Riverdance, and thinks her jokes are the funniest of all jokes.
My friend Alex is a great listener and an inquisitive ally. He sincerely listens to all kinds of people, to all kinds of stories, and to all kinds of opinions. At his core, Alex is an empathetic scientist, asking questions to understand, free from prejudice. He’s also a real scientist, currently earning a PhD in microbiology at BYU.
More than once I’ve told Alex about sexism I’ve experienced, and even though he can’t completely relate, he acknowledges the hurt I have felt. Alex doesn’t accept my experience as half true with caveats and disclaimers. He doesn’t paint over unpleasantness or dismiss it. He doesn’t superficially validate me and then dole out advice. He’s not impatiently waiting to launch into his own lived experiences, or competing to get the last word. Alex just sits with the situation and reflects with me. He doesn’t pretend he knows better or knows how I feel, he shows humility.
In a 2004 paper, Humility as a Source of Competitive Advantage, Dusya Vera and Antonio Rodriguez-Lopez described common misconceptions about humility. Though humility is often associated with timidity and seen as a weakness, the authors argue the opposite, “that humility offers strategic value for firms by furnishing organizational members with a realistic perspective of themselves, the firm, and the environment.”
This “realistic perspective” allows us to see other people and ourselves with more clarity, and makes us more accepting of different people and new ideas. Humility allows us to see and understand the experiences or environment of others, even when we haven’t personally experienced that. It can help us to overcome the bias that “all we see is all there is”. Humility and meekness are essential as we grapple with the local and global impacts of racism and sexism, because it offers each of us a window into someone else’s life.
Just last week Yoshiro Mori, former Japanese prime minister, resigned as the head of the 2020 Olympic organizing committee after making sexist remarks about senior female Olympic officials. His lack of humility undermined his own contributions and led to his controversial departure. Without meekness we won’t be able to solve or even recognize the problems of inequality, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc., we may even become part of the problem. Meekness and humility allow us to accept diversity, not as a threat, but as an opportunity.
When humility encompasses sincerity, open-mindedness, and self-awareness we can more easily see past disagreeable positions and personalities. Eleanor Roosevelt described how to live with humility and meekness: “A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.”
Thanks to my friend and neighbor Alex, for being a great listener, an inquisitive ally, and an empathetic scientist. Let’s all keep experimenting with meekness and humility.
Shannon Ellsworth is the Community Development Manager at Sunrise Engineering, serving clients with land use policy and environmental solutions. Shannon serves on the Provo City Council, on the Governor’s Rural Partnership Board, and on multiple nonprofit boards. She earned an MBA from BYU and a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University.
by Jennifer Partridge
Last week as I was coming home, I stopped at the neighborhood set of mailboxes. It is located next to an open area where the kids like to play. As I was getting out of my car, I heard a young voice exclaiming excitedly, “I thought that was you!” I looked over to see one of the 11 year-old neighbors and her friend running over to me with big smiles on their faces. As I got my mail, we talked for a minute or two, and then they went back to playing as I got in my car and headed home. That small encounter made my entire day!
What was so special about it? Well, first, I was flattered that a kid in the neighborhood was excited to see this old lady! Second, she took a moment to notice me and then to intentionally leave what she was doing to say hello. She didn’t give me a verbal compliment and we didn’t talk about anything profound. But her actions told me she cared and we made a short yet powerful connection that day.
According to Brene Brown, connection is:
“The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
To me, this is the essence of kindness, and it is exactly what happened to me that afternoon at the mailboxes. That moment of feeling valued definitely strengthened me! Each of us desires to be seen, heard, and valued. When someone makes an effort to show us they truly care, it lifts and strengthens us. Kindness doesn’t have to be a grand act of service, but instead consists of intention and effort.
Connection is important in our homes. I find when my kids are having a hard time, things go better not when I talk about their poor behavior, but when I take time to look in their eyes and do something to show I care about them as an individual. Connection is important in our neighborhoods. When neighbors know each other and value each other, they’re more likely to do things that will enhance the neighborhood and overlook the small things that don’t matter. Connection is important in our community. When we feel seen, heard, and valued, we can have productive dialogues regarding issues we disagree on and work together to find solutions.
How do we create connection? First, make it a priority. Ask yourself daily, “What can I do to connect with someone today?” Second, find small ways to show people that you value them and truly care about them. Send a text, make a phone call, write a note, deliver a treat. In situations with strangers, such as at the store, strike up a conversation. Now, I’m not suggesting you need to talk to every person you see while shopping! But when you’re standing right across from the cashier, you could very well make his or her day by making a small effort to say hello. How many people come through their line and don’t say anything? What a difference you can make to show them you see them as a fellow human being by talking to them!
One of the best ways to create connection is by asking sincere questions. Whether the other person is a stranger, an acquaintance, a coworker, friend, or family member, you can show interest in them by asking questions and then truly listening to understand. Sometimes in our conversations we tend to “one-up” each other. Although often not intentional, when they share something that reminds us of something in our own life, we start talking all about our experience and forget to listen to THEIR experience. Ask questions with genuine interest in making a connection!
What prevents us from building connections with others? Sometimes we worry that we will come off as “fake” and so we don’t even try. We get scared that we will be rejected or misunderstood. When you feel that way, remind yourself that people can sense sincerity. When you are trying to connect with someone, when you are desiring to learn more about them and to value them, you have nothing to lose! They will feel your love and will be strengthened by your small act of kindness, and you, too, will “derive sustenance and strength” from your efforts to build the relationship.
Jennifer Partridge is a wife and mom to 3 boys and 1 girl, ages 11-19. She currently serves on the Provo School District Board of Education and is also passionate about kindness, connection, and building community. Jennifer loves chocolate, Disneyland, date nights at all of the amazing Provo restaurants, working out, and traveling.
by Rebecca Nielsen
There’s a lot to say and think about when it comes to kindness and inclusion. But this time I’m going to skip the deep thoughts and profound statements and give you the moral of this story right away: Inclusion is very important because exclusion feels horrible.
I don’t need to write anything quoteworthy for you to understand how much it stinks to be excluded and how great it feels to be included. If you are a living, breathing human, then I’d place a large bet on the fact that you have experienced both exclusion and inclusion in your lifetime. You know the feelings of anger, despair and sadness that come with being left out of something. You also know the feelings of joy, excitement and peace that come from feeling like you belong.
I learned of these feelings early in life when my two older sisters would not let me join their private cousin-club, “The Up-chicks.” I was banned from the exclusive meetings held in the oh-so-elegant rafters of my grandparent’s garage and I was sure no other 5 year old had ever been so rejected. And in fifth grade the leader of our girl-gang randomly decided that she didn’t like me anymore. I was pestered, then ignored, then assaulted with some of the harshest words I’d ever heard. And I was pretty sure no one’s feelings had ever been more hurt as I cried myself to sleep that night.
On the flip side, I remember never feeling more secure than the time that my girlfriends and I laughed our hearts out late into the night after ordering nothing but water cups in the drive-through. We ding-dong-ditched people and left the cups on their porches. That night the “Water Bandits” were born and so was an indestructible friendship that was solid, safe, and real.
You and I could both name many examples of inclusion and exclusion in our lives that range from the small and insignificant to the soul-crushing or blissfully joyous instances that are too complex and sacred to write about. And while I would never give up the valuable life-lessons that each side has provided me, I still can’t help but wonder why we voluntarily hurt others by excluding them? When we know exactly how awful it feels, why do we let ourselves seal a fate of exclusion for others? When we know how amazing it feels to be included, why don’t we choose to make sure others become a part of something wonderful?
I don’t know why human nature compels us to facilitate exclusivity. But I do know that humans are adaptable and changeable. We do have the ability to recognize weaknesses and overcome them. And we absolutely do have the capacity to use our positivity in life as motivation to make sure others experience the same.
As we wrap back around to where we started, I know the message here may feel oversimplified. But it really can be as simple as this: next time you feel your fears, insecurities and doubts keeping you from including others, I challenge you to instead open your heart, expand your circles and step out of your comfort zone as you remember: Inclusion is very important because exclusion feels horrible.
Rebecca Nielsen is a Provo resident of 22 years, local preschool teacher, small business owner, and Provo school board member. She and her husband are raising 4 boys and they enjoy traveling and exploring the outdoors as a family. The keys to Rebecca’s heart are: a good book, sleeping in on Saturdays, chocolate covered strawberries, and a cold Dr. Pepper.
by Jennifer Lambert
Several years ago, I came across a widely shared letter written to Dear Abby, the famed advice columnist, from a group of sisters and sisters-in-law who were seeking an answer about how to deal with one of the sisters-in-law. The letter stated that the women in the family went on a vacation together each year, but one of the sisters-in-law, in their words, was just too different from everyone else, which made things awkward at times. Their solution to the sister-in-law problem was to just not include her – to take a vacation that included all the women in the family except her. Dear Abby had many things to say to this group of women, but the gist of her response was that these sisters needed to lean into their discomfort and do what they could to be more inclusive.
Most of us would probably have the same reaction that Dear Abby had because we all know what it’s like not to be invited to sit with the cool kids at lunch. We’ve all felt different or “othered” at some point in our lives, but many times we’re not aware when we’re the ones doing the othering and excluding those in our own community. How can we become more inclusive?
Our differences are what makes our community strong. Imagine you’re organizing a potluck (in pre-pandemic times, of course), but you only invite people that always make funeral potatoes. Funeral potatoes are good, but have you ever tried that pretzel jello dessert or frog eye salad? When you only include those that always bring the same thing to the table, others that have differing ideas and opinions don’t feel comfortable joining. We limit our resources when we stick to what we know and are comfortable with.
In order to be more inclusive, we need to take the time to get to know each other. We can ask sincere questions, listen to understand and avoid making assumptions and judgements about others. When we’re curious about those who are different from us, and try getting to know them with an open mind and a goal to make them feel acknowledged and valued, we’re opening ourselves and our community up for growth.
Sometimes this growth can be painful because it causes us to acknowledge our own unconscious biases. We can identify these biases within us and work toward eliminating them. As we do this, we will change how we think of, speak to and treat others who are different from us. It’s a process, but it’s not an unachievable goal. Mother Theresa, the wise woman that she was, said, “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot. Together we can do great things.”
Jennifer Lambert is a writer, a PTO president, a mom and a wife. She’s never met a cheese she didn’t like and doesn’t let a little lactose intolerance get in the way of achieving her dreams. Although not a native of Provo she considers it her home now, having been welcomed with open arms and ranch dressing from the BYU Creamery.
by Abraham Hernandez
Someone once said, “kindness leads to understanding.” While we may not always agree with each other on diverse topics, we all know what it is like to be human and to struggle. It is through this shared human experience and our differences that help us come together as a community. We sometimes think that an act of kindness has to be grand and time consuming, but it is really the little things that make the biggest impact.
I have called Provo home for 25 years, and in that time, I have witness kindness all around me. This is not to say we don’t have miles to go to show all of our communities that make up Provo kindness, but there are definitely folks that have done their part.
The woman who comes out of a grocery store and hands a homeless person a bag a food, the man that pays for someone’s meal, the teenager that grabs something from a top shelf for someone, the little kid that opens the door for someone—these are examples of small acts of kindness that tend to go unnoticed.
I remember reading a story online where someone shared an experience of being in a check-out line at a store and having this feeling that they needed to say hello to the person in front of them. They said hello and asked how they were to which the elderly man in front of them responded, “I’m great. It’s my birthday.” They wished the elderly man a happy birthday and that was the end of the exchange. For some reason we have become scared to talk to each other, but a simple hello or smile can make a big impact in someone’s day.
There are folks in our community that donated their stimulus checks to help families that have struggled during this global pandemic, face masks have been made and donated to communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and donated winter gear to low-incomes families to stay warm.
As a member of this community, I have seen many examples of kindness, but I am also aware that there are community members that have not been shown this same kindness for a variety of reasons. I know that we can do better.
I would challenge everyone to post on social media every time someone shows a small act of kindness towards you, your family, or your community. Let’s spread positivity and create a more unified community in 2021!
Abraham has called Provo home for many years and is fully invested in creating a space where everyone is heard and involved within the community. He attend Provo City School District, worked for the District, and now works with the District as part of their Diversity & Equity Community Council. Abraham has a degree in Communication, and is currently working on a second degree in English Literature. He loves his community and wants to see it thrive.
By Mary James
I totally get it. I used to arrive at work really angry every morning and thought I was having a mini stroke every time someone cut me off. I blamed them for making me late, had all sorts of ugly conversations in my head about how awful a person they must be, etc. and then one day I realized I was being manipulated to feel this way.
I think we are all a little too concerned with fairness. Or at least we want to make sure no one gets more than his fair share- yet we feel victorious when we do. All the while we tell our children- “Life’s not fair, get used to it.”
It’s like a grudge we hold with society. Every time things aren’t fair for us fuels those road rage and other bad decisions.
I got too angry every time I lost at this game, and I lost a lot. So I decided I would be the person to grant mercy to another, and make them the winner- just to show the game that it wasn’t in control- I was. And a funny thing happened: I started feeling happy for others. I stopped worrying so much about my wins and found another way to win.
So heck with fairness for everyone! I support mercy for all, and I celebrate others’ wins as mine. I try to mess with the system at least once or twice a day.
Can you imagine if everyone did this? Now I’m happier, and I still get to my destination just as fast as I always did.
I’m hoping to re-engineer this game with people who are tired of feeling angry too. Let’s mess with the system, and see if we don’t become happier while we make others happy at the same time.
Mary Allison James is a small town girl from Southern Arizona, but has resided in the Provo Area since 2001. She is married and has 5 grown children, and two grandchildren. An educator for 28 years, she is an assistant principal at Provo High School, but still finds time to help operate her family businesses of a small farm and cattle company, and an equestrian facility. Additionally, Mary loves to write, paint, and garden, but has diverted her energies to finishing her Doctorate of Educational Leadership at the University of Arizona. Mary's professional passion is in helping underprivileged children achieve, and hopes to someday publish her research on the topic.
By Janae Moss
I remember walking through the doors of South Davis Junior High school at the beginning of my seventh-grade year.
I was wearing my favorite blue sweater that I ordered from the JCPenney catalog, and I was excited about my carefully applied pink and blue L’Oreal eyeshadow. My permed hair and ratted bangs were frozen into the perfect 80’s shape with my Aqua Net hairspray -- the same bangs that caught a fly during ballet lessons earlier that year. (Through desperate swats, I set the insect free before anyone knew, until now.)
On picture day, I awkwardly sat on an old wooden stool. The photographer looked straight into my face and barked, “Stop frowning and smile for the camera!” I was forcing my Lip Smackers lips over my shiny new braces, which created an uncomfortable image to behold. I looked around and wondered how all of the other girls were perfectly confident.
I was trying desperately to be accepted. But what I really wanted was to belong.
Many years later, having raised six daughters, I can confidently say that none of the girls in junior high felt perfectly confident, and my decision to roll and peg my acid-washed jeans might have earned me some approval, but it was never going to make me feel like I belonged.
The details change when we are adults, but the story is the same.
Our deepest need is to belong. We join clubs, read bestsellers, hop on social media threads, we even reject other people or ideas to feel like we are a part of a group.
Belonging is fundamental to us. Have you ever felt unwelcome or excluded? At school, or at work, or in your own family? It’s excruciating to bear. On the flip side, are there places where you feel that you do belong? Think of what that place looks like, what it sounds or smells or tastes like, what you do there. Let yourself feel the sense of safety and satisfaction that come from belonging.
This sensation is very different from acceptance, or fitting in. It’s different from being appreciated. At the very heart of “belonging” is the word “long.” To be-long to something is to stay with it for the long haul. It is an active choice we make to a relationship, to a place, to our body, to life because we value it.
When you can count on that sense of belonging, and when you know how to create it, your life changes. Your community changes.
I regularly train groups on social connections and building relationships. One of the main points we cover is how to genuinely welcome and listen to people. Magic happens when people take the time to sit across from one another (or on Zoom) and connect. When someone feels overlooked or like attention is conditional on “fitting in,” they will not open up and build a substantial connection. But with sincere listening, when you take the time to understand another person’s world and are curious about them, a genuine bond begins to form.
When we consciously tear down the invisible walls of judgment, people don’t just get to know one another. Listening across differences with openness and curiosity means that people can feel comfortable and safe. Their strengths and talents can peek out. They begin to grow into their potential as co-workers, parents, friends, volunteers, students, employees, teammates. Our community becomes stronger because we see and affirm people for who they are.
And, trust me, there will be differences. We celebrate and worship differently. We raise our families differently. We have different levels of education. We have different languages. We have different ways life has been rough on us. We respond differently to major national issues.
Differences are normal. Our power lies in not letting them separate us into small, fragile, and fearful silos. To combat that fear, we must take the simple actions of belonging upon ourselves. Those actions let us connect so that we are better across our communities, across our city.
Strangely enough, the choice to build belonging is an individual choice. We can’t control how others treat us. We can only choose how we will treat others. So let’s start there. 2020 has been a year of unbearable loneliness and isolation, from schoolkids who can’t see their friends for months to restaurant workers who can’t serve the patrons they love. Let each of us practice belonging — learning how to listen with genuine curiosity — so that we come through with strength, together.
We don’t need ratted bangs and Aqua Net to find our way to belonging (though it would be hilarious to recreate that look). Start with one friend, one acquaintance, one person, and listen to what they have to say.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, I didn’t make the cheerleading team - not by a long shot. Thank goodness “Mindy” still thought I was “cool” and thought, “next year will be great!”
Janae Moss is the mother of seven, grandmother of four, co-owner of multiple businesses, family advocate, and community organizer. She is the co-founder of Parents Driving Change, and its umbrella organization, Humans Driving Change. PDC encourages parents to use their innate ability to lead, by sharing their experiences with the organizations that support them. She and her husband, Jon, have built several businesses, including their flagship RBM Building Maintenance. She has a BA in Integrated Studies, with an emphasis in Psychology and Leadership, and is earning a Master’s in Performance Psychology.
By Sean Edwards
I love driving into Provo and seeing “Welcome Home” upon entering city limits. I moved to Provo in 2006 to attend college at BYU. Immediately, Provo became my home. I remember preparing for graduation and thinking, “Where do I want to move?” With my career as an educator, I could literally go anywhere. But, everywhere I wanted to be and build my life was right here in Provo. Provo is home.
We have three high schools in Provo including Provo, Timpview, and Independence. I have been so fortunate to have the opportunity to work as a teacher and administrator in Provo City School District. In 2017, I learned the true meaning of “Welcome Home”.
Laura (pseudonym), a 16-year-old junior (11th grade), approached me one day and expressed that our school needed to be more intentional about how we approach new students at the school. She shared ideas about how she wanted to see each new student receive a personal welcome upon enrolling at the school. Although Laura was involved in multiple athletic programs, Student Government, advanced courses, and more, she kindly offered to lead this inclusivity initiative. Laura designed an incredible system where each week, she would get a list of all new students. Then, she scheduled a time to meet with the student. She introduced herself to the new student as their friend and showed them around the school. She let the student know important tips for “how to do school” such as following the school’s Instagram and provided a list of different clubs and activities to get involved in. She also put together a “welcome bag” for students which included a drawstring bag, school supplies, a school shirt, important documents (maps, contact information, etc.), and other school swag (lanyard, flashlight keychain, etc.). Every new student I talked to was so appreciative of the warm welcome Laura provided them.
Laura continued this through her senior (12th grade) year and enlisted more people to help her, forming a New Student Welcome Committee. Now, our new student welcome program has transformed to be a larger part of our school-wide outreach efforts. This all happened because one person had the vision to improve kindness within our school’s culture.
I am so grateful to Laura for teaching me what “welcome home” truly means. “Welcome home” is more than just a physical sign. “Welcome home” is embodied by kind individuals that are intentional and deliberate about letting you know that you belong here, you have a place with us, your contribution is needed, and because of your differences, we need you.
As you seek to apply a “welcome home” mindset, consider the following reflective questions:
1. Who are the individuals or groups that I can show kindness and be welcoming towards?
2. Who in my community needs to feel welcomed the most?
3. What does being welcoming look like in authentic and genuine ways?
4. How will I remind myself to be welcoming?
5. What are my motives for being kind and welcoming?
6. Who else can I invite to have a “welcome home” perspective? How can I partner with others?
Sean Edwards is currently in his fourth year as an Assistant Principal at Timpview High School. Prior to his administrative assignment, he was an instructional coach and special education teacher. He is also in his second year in a doctorate program at The University of Utah. Sean enjoys being around friends and family (cousin game nights!), traveling, spending time with his husband, and eating a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream every night. :)
By Becca Kearle
In the past week, I have done two different national media interviews because I voted differently than my parents in the past election. In the time leading up to and immediately after the elections we were in constant conversation about our concerns, our hopes, and which way we were leaning in the presidential race. The journalists talking to us were a combination of amused, intrigued, and baffled by this close relationship that allowed for dialogue and respect in the face of political differences. Somehow, in our culture and in our politics, the idea of difference has been reduced to divisiveness rather than variety. We attach differences or try to avoid them and often make assumptions about others based on what we perceive as differences.
In my work, I engage communities across the country in exploring meaningful conversations across differences. One of the most powerful ways to combat confirmation bias and increase understanding and trust is simply to listen and talk to each other and 2020 has given us a lot of material to work with!
What meaningful conversation do you wish you could have right now? Who would you want to have it with?
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the train-wreck scenario of talking politics with relatives over the holidays. No matter what your holiday gatherings look like (in person or online), there are things you can do to have better conversations. These are some of the guideposts I use at work as well as in my personal life: (1) Be curious and listen to understand, (2) Show respect and suspend judgment, (3) Note any common ground as well as any differences, and (4) Be authentic and welcome that from others. With those elements in place you can lead out and talk about how this year has been for you and ask others what their experiences have been. You can have a “conversation potluck” and invite guests to bring a question they want to discuss. The only rules are that it can’t be a yes/no question or one that will get you focused on opinions rather than experiences (you don’t want to get caught up in fact checking).
The relationship I have with my parents is based in mutual respect and trust. It allows us to disagree, because I know who they are at their core. It allows us to ask each other real questions without any of us feeling threatened or attacked. We don’t necessarily change our minds often, but we do allow our positions and ideas to become more complex. One of the experiences we shared with the reporters was the shift we had around immigration. I grew up in Maine where I didn’t really think about immigration at all. My mom grew up in southern California where immigration was everywhere. It wasn’t until my sister married her undocumented husband that I was able to tether a human life to the ideas and policies around immigration. I listened to his story about crossing the border with a coyote as a minor and it challenged my assumptions around who comes to this country and why. (I also recognize that his is one of many stories that illustrate many different aspects of immigration.) Through all my many conversations, I have realized that fear thrives in a one-dimensional, simplified version of life. When we open ourselves to understanding difference and connecting with each other through conversation, we can enjoy humanity in all its complicated vivacity. This is the essence of kindness to me-- to sit with someone else, to really see and hear them.
This year I am giving thanks for the beautiful diversity of our experiences. I believe in the power of communities. I believe that our shared humanity is stronger than our religious, political, or ideological differences. I also believe and have witnessed how our community can be strengthened when we see and hear each other.
** I have developed free PDF “conversation menus” that I invite you to use. There’s also a Friends and Family Conversation Tip Sheet PDF you may find helpful.
Becca Kearl is involved in numerous local non-profit endeavors and is a founding member of the Utah Dialogue Practice Network. As a Managing Partner at Living Room Conversations, she believes in the power of dialogue around difficult topics to strengthen communities locally and nationally. She is also fully engaged in the non-profit effort of raising 5 kids.