By Becca Kearl
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.