In the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville, I’ve been grappling with what to say – to my kids, my clients and my community. I intended to blog this month about something entirely different, but I simply can’t stay silent about the hideous rends in the fabric of our society. Born and raised in Virginia, and being Jewish, this most recent act of hatred has hit close to home in ways that penetrated to my core. So, I’m digging deeply into whatever bag of tools and tricks I can access to find ways to move forward.
Over the course of the past seven years as a coach and advisor, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some truly visionary leaders and come into contact – via their books, public talks or conversations – with some true thought leaders who address the ways in which we communicate and build strong relationships and institutions.
Here are some take-aways that I offer in service of moving forward. Together.
First, we need to talk... Not “at” each other, but with each other. During my coach training, I was introduced to a terrific methodology for having difficult conversations. One person tells their story - about a situation or event that was hard or contentious. The other party (or parties) just listen. Then, he/she has that same story reflected back to him/her by those listening – as close to verbatim as possible. During each person’s turn, there are no interruptions or clarifications allowed. Just super active listening. Each person takes her or his turn, telling their truth and hearing it recited. No corrections, no judgement, no ‘but, but, buts….” It sounds simple and yet time and again the amount of learning that results is stunning. You really can get to a new level of agreement; it’s about being heard and then moving forward based on a shared understanding of each other’s lived perspective of our words and actions.
The extraordinary Brene Brown offers a great way to frame conversations by opening with the line “the story that I’m telling myself is…..” This allows a few things:
- It acknowledges that we are indeed living inside our heads, with internal monologues that are stories, not [just] objective facts.
- It doesn’t assign blame or judge anyone, including yourself.
- It allows whomever you are talking with to listen with the knowledge that you are taking responsibility for your thoughts, words and actions.
(I love this technique, as it can work in personal and professional relationships.)
Finally, I had the privilege of working with an empathy-promoting non-profit organization, Narrative4. Established to create powerful, authentic dialogue among people and groups on opposing sides of issues, events and other critical divides, the organization uses a deceptively simple technique to achieve mind-blowing results: radical empathy. Like the exercise above, you take turns telling a story. This time, it's your story. The one about yourself that reveals something personal and powerful - about being bullied, about quitting, about dating (!), about love and about loss, about finding your voice, about failing, about picking yourself up, about dreams dashed or achieved. The listening partner then tells your story, out loud and in the first person. You and the listener literally become each other. The protagonist in another’s life. I have done this, I have witnessed it, and I have seen it used around the world and can attest to its power to bridge gaps, mend fences and build consensus.
Yes, what the world needs now is love. It also needs us to talk openly and thoughtfully to each other about our worries, our wounds, our fears and our hopes. We need to own our stories and let others own theirs in a way that is respectful and open. It’s hard work, but along with challenging oppressive beliefs, systems and policies, it is what we must do now and for the foreseeable future.