Let’s learn and practice talking to each other differently
By Peter Gibb
“How do we fix the growing problems in our society?” asks Alan DeBoer in his May 2022 Viewpoint “The grand experiment of our country is being torn apart.” I repeat his question because any American who thinks and cares should be asking that question today. DeBoer goes on to enumerate various potential solutions, such as getting the money out of politics and expanding mental health services. Many of his ideas sound good and reasonable.
Unfortunately, many of his ideas are, not surprisingly, also very complex, politically charged, expensive and explosive. In our polarized world, such reasonable concepts immediately provide cannon fodder for demagogic politicos, conspiracy-oriented talk show hosts, and the many groups who prefer to make a mess rather than fix the dinner.
DeBoer’s well-intentioned ideas mostly depend on government to act, and that, unfortunately, is a tall order these days.
He lists one idea, a T-shirt that he saw, that said, “Help Make America Nice Again.” Now that’s one we could run with.
Here’s another idea, cut from the same cloth (sorry, couldn’t resist). It won’t solve all the problems either, but — like the T-shirt — it requires no government intervention. This idea costs nothing, and is relatively simple.
What I’m suggesting is a grass roots movement. Don’t laugh. Consider what grass roots efforts have accomplished in the past: women’s suffrage, civil rights, environmental consciousness, even Social Security (a movement that started from a one-person newsletter by Col. Francis Townsend, in 1930s). What about #MeToo and Black Lives Matter?
Here’s my simple, free idea. Let’s learn and practice talking to each other differently. Learn to listen, rather than jumping to debate and argument. Set conversational intentions on understanding rather than winning. Listen to what’s underneath the words, what’s not said as much as what is said. Practice speaking more authentically. Employ radical concepts like silence in conversation. (Silence, OMG! What?) Pause to breath and reflect. Teach basic conversation skills in school, because conversation is, I believe, the most important life skill that you never studied in school. At least, I certainly didn’t, and I sure could have used it.
Yep, that’s it. I’ve been studying and teaching such skills as the above for 25-plus years. I’ve seen them work. I’ve seen them open closed minds, build friendships, mend broken marriages, and forge coalitions between groups who previously thought mostly about killing each other.
Not every time. Not perfectly. But a whole lot better than what appears to be the norm for “social dialogue” these days.
The stakes couldn’t be higher: the American Experiment. Our dream of a democratic, diverse society. Even bigger: Our hope to leave a planet for future generations. And universal: your right and my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — rather than being gunned down at a July 4 parade by a weapon of mass destruction.
It’s time we move beyond screens and screams. Time we learn to speak out and listen in. Time we learn ways to understand, connect and live as one common humanity.
Ashland resident Peter Gibb is a multiple award-winning author, speaker, teacher and coach. His latest book is “Mindful Conversation: Speak Openly, Connect Deeply, Live Joyously.” He can be reached at petergibb.org.