By Catherine Conner, Gary Friedman, and Katherine Miller
Lawyers learn to see conflict as a battle between two sets of adversaries – “opposing clients” and “opposing lawyers.” Often, they are driven, even if subconsciously, to both guard and aggress for clients—like a warrior with a shield and a sword. When we work with lawyers in our model, we strive to create a team of people thinking about and dealing with conflict in a different way.
Contracting with lawyers about their roles is a pivotal step in creating the paradigm shift. We want to preserve the protective function of the lawyers while at the same time highlight the ways they can support the parties to co-create the best solution for themselves. We emphasize the important role of lawyers in gathering and explaining factual information, helping the parties to be clear about what is important to them, and using their past experience in brainstorming creative options and putting together deals. We are changing the process from one based on coercion to one where we all work together to put the parties in a position to make decisions together. And throughout the entire process, the lawyer ensures that their client’s interests are voiced and protected.
We have conversations about the law that will be constructive for the process. Adversarial lawyers often have different views of the law and the likely outcome for their clients, which the parties need to know, but the way they present their views can cause friction. Furthermore, what may be deemed fair by the law may not ultimately be fair for the clients, hindering the development of a resolution that addresses what is important to each party. Our goal in how we present the law is to educate the parties about the possibilities if they do not reach an agreement while not limiting them to just find a result based in law. We also do not want to have the conversation about the law bleed into the conversation about what is important to them.
By participating in deepening their client’s understanding of what is important to the parties underlying the conflict, lawyers can help expand their clients’ perspectives. Since lawyers may know of different pieces of the conflict than the mediator, the other lawyer, and the other party, the lawyers can play a prominent bridging role in developing an understanding what is important to each party. The parties can then decide which principles, values, and things of importance to incorporate into the solution framework.
Through participating in supporting the parties to negotiate, lawyers can help clients better understand their alternatives. Often in mediation, we’re negotiating in the shadow of the law, which pushes for creating a solution purely based on the law of the jurisdiction. However, framing the process as one where the parties are creating something new can help expand negotiations beyond just the law, and incorporate what is really important to the parties. The lawyers’ experience in similar situations is a valuable resource for creative and practical solutions.
Our goal as mediators is to empower parties to know that they can decide the law of their case—they’re bigger together than just the jurisdictional law. Ultimately, we want the lawyers to be on our team so they can help their clients expand their perspective—particularly when things become difficult. On June 25-26, we are hosting an advanced training, Attorneys in the Room, that will provide an in-depth demonstration of how to work with lawyers and clients together in the same room.
Statement from the Center for Understanding in Conflict
We stand in solidarity with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and individuals. At the Center for Understanding in Conflict, we recognize that our AAPI members, colleagues, friends, and families have long faced injustice, xenophobia, and violence, and our society is past due in reckoning with the deep-rooted racism that is fomenting acts of hate and violence.
The names and stories of the victims of the shootings in Atlanta, which included six women of Asian descent, made headline news first shared by Korean media outlets, while the U.S. media mostly focused on the shooter and opted to quote law enforcement. This continues a tradition of the erasure of Asian Americans in mainstream society. Further, media coverage included law enforcement statements reinforcing stereotypes that in turn were splashed across media outlets seen by millions. Even as the deadly consequences of hate captured the attention of the nation, the violence persists—for example in an attack on an elderly Asian woman in New York City last week.
Racism, xenophobia, and violence against AAPI communities is deeply woven into the fabric of American history—a history largely left out of American education, fueling the cycle of racism and violence. The mainstream has forgotten the lynching of 17 Chinese men by a white mob in 1871 Los Angeles, has glossed over in WWII history the stories of the over 110,000 Japanese Americans—including children—dispaced from their homes to internment camps, and has ignored countless stories showing the danger and violence of bigotry and white supremacy.
The current hate facing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is part of this legacy. To interrupt these dynamics, we must learn about and understand how these centuries of racism intersect with other dynamics, such as sexism, to fuel the current violence. At the Center for Understanding in Conflict, we recognize that we still have a long way to go and we are committed to work on correcting our biases, dismantling our complacency, and taking the actions required to be a more just, equitable, and inclusive organization. For our dear members, friends and family in the AAPI communities, we are here for you and we support you.
Oh, God, I pray that someday every race
May stand on equal plane
And prejudice will find no dwelling place
In a peace that all may gain.
– Mary Matsuzawa
Matsuzawa was a young woman when she was forced into a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
1. Reach out to friends and family members of Asian descent
You might say something like, “Are you OK?” or “Would you like to talk” or “This must be tough and I’m sorry you are going through this” or ‘”I don’t know exactly what you are going through, but I am always here to help” or “You really matter to me” or “How can I help, if at all.”
What leaders can do – The simplest thing managers and organizational leaders can do for their Asian American employees is to use their privilege to acknowledge the recent news of anti-Asian violence, and give space for impacted individuals to process, grieve and heal. (Read: How to support Asian American Colleagues by Jennifer Liu, CNBC)
Hold a ceremony to honor and remember victims of anti-Asian hate crimes
Support Asian-owned local businesses (e.g., SF Chinatown is struggling)
2. Raise awareness, speak up, and condemn anti-Asian racism
Read and share these articles on the rise of recent anti-Asian violence
Compassion in Oakland provides the Oakland Chinatown Community with a resource for promoting safety and community to the forgotten, underserved, and vulnerable.
Hate is a virus – started as a grassroots movement to combat racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) fueled by COVID-19, Hate is a virus has evolved into a sustainable organization that addresses xenophobia and hate in the AAPI and BIPOC communities.
Act To Change – a national nonprofit organization working to address bullying, including in the AAPI community. They published “The Racism is a Virus Toolkit” to support the community in combating racism.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice – a national nonprofit organization that focuses on housing rights, immigration, civil rights, labor rights, and others for Asian Americans
National Council of Asian Pacific Americans – a nonprofit organization that serves to represent the interests of the greater Asian American (AA) and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities through a coalition of 37 national Asian Pacific American organizations around the country.
After hearing Tyrone on UC Berkeley’s Fiat Vox podcast, CUC Board member Melanie Rowen followed up to learn more about how he does his powerful and transformative work. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Melanie Rowen [MR]: The Center for Understanding in Conflict, in addition to helping people learn the concrete skills of mediating, is focused on the internal work we need to do to be able to show up effectively in conflict conversations. In your student conduct work, or in your work at Berkeley talking about race, how do you go inside yourself to manage the situation when someone says something that is difficult [for you]?
Tyrone Wise [TW]:
In a weird way I get excited about it, because it allows me to challenge myself and to really get into listening to what that person is saying, and hearing what they’re telling me. Because they’re telling me a lot more than they realize they’re telling me. A lot of it is just misinformation, a lot of it is stereotype, a lot of it is bias, a lot of it is just frustration, anger, lived experiences that are misguided or misplaced.
As they’re telling me their stories, I’m processing what they’re telling me, and I’m hearing anger. And I say, “I hear what you’re saying and it sounds like…” And I’ll give it back to them, what I’m understanding that they’re saying to me, in their terms. And it’s interesting watching their body language shift, because they’re like, you heard me and you’re not reacting to that. I am able to hear emotion and move that.
I never want to discount a person’s feelings. But I also want to use that as an opportunity to educate them. “Okay, this is what you say, where did that come from? What would you have done differently, or how did that make you feel?” And that unpacks that emotion, to where I can get to that root, to what really is the cause of that person’s feeling. And now let’s pick at that, and show you how that was misplaced anger, or misunderstanding, or a stereotype, or bias that is incorrect.
Once you’re able to remove that barrier or that wall that person comes in with—and Daryl Davis in his film Accidental Courtesy does a great explanation of that—you’re able to have that personal conversation, and see that person as a person. And once that is able to happen, the conversation shifts, because now I can be vulnerable and we can actually share some intimate conversations. And in doing that you create a relationship that is more caring, more giving and not so guarded and aggressive. And I think that’s the skill I have that has made the biggest difference.
MR: What about situations where you’re working with people in conflict? How do you approach having a multi-party conversation?
TW: One way that I do it is I try to find a common ground. I try to find what each person is saying. And humans are so cyclical, so it’s just trying to find where the common ground is in that conversation, and then holding on to that and letting that be the thread that keeps us on track.
Sometimes I’ll provide reading materials or videos. Or just more follow-up. It all depends on the relationship and how I feel the conversation is going. But I think the biggest piece is just listening, finding that common thread that allows us to keep that conversation on track to what we want to address.
MR: Are you often coming into conversation where a specific thing has occurred, or there’s a specific thing that needs to be addressed? Or are you coming in and assessing with people, what is it that we’re talking about? And how often do you bring your own agenda to that, and how often is that driven by the other folks there?
TW: Both—sometimes I come in with the idea of where I want to go, and sometimes I come in and just say, tell me what’s going on, allowing both people to speak and not be interrupted by the other. I allow them to talk, say their piece, to me, not to that other person but to me. But so that other person can hear. And then when they tell their story, they’ll give their piece, again uninterrupted by the other, and it allows everybody to hear the same story. From there I’m able to unpack.
One of the statements that I’ll often use—my wife gets mad when I say this—but I say, your perception is not always the reality. Because we can see something and automatically tell ourselves, this is what it is, not realizing that there’s more to that story that we don’t have.
I often used that in student conduct, because you would read a [student’s] case and say to yourself, oh yeah, done, guilty. And then they’ll come in and they’ll tell you their story, and it’s like, wow, I didn’t see that coming. I took time to listen to that person—I didn’t just come in and hammer them and say, I looked at your case, this is what [your punishment] is going to be, have a nice day. I took time to say, you know, how was your day, what’s what’s the toughest class that you’re having right now, how’s home, where do you live? Once I’m able to understand who that person is, [their] wall is not as high, in many cases it’s not there at all, because they were able to really talk about themselves to a person who was really willing to listen. And things were so different from what I [first] saw it as.
MR: That really resonates with me. In the context of mediation, often the person who’s a mediator has an external reality that they need to deliver to the parties, some information they may not love hearing. And you have to lay the ground for people to be ready to hear, this is the reality we’re all facing. In mediation it’s often, here’s what a court will do with this information if we were to take it there. In student conduct, you’re saying, this is going to be the consequence for the behavior that you already engaged in, but trying to put that in context [so they can grow].
You do some facilitation work at Berkeley, including conversations about race. In our political culture, there’s a premium on making your point, not creating space for people who say things that you think are problematic. How do you help people to get on board with understanding each other?
TW: That’s tough because you’re dealing with emotions. When you’re dealing with emotions that are sometimes very charged, it’s giving space and allowing them to be heard, and letting them know that you heard them. And giving them that same expectation of that being given back to you.
When they’re speaking, I try to be straight faced, because I don’t want to, you know, “there we go with this, one of these again.” And then I give it back to them, “okay, so this is what I’m hearing,” and they say, “yeah, okay.” And I’ll say, “okay, now how is that different from the other side, who says this, or can show these things?”
I compare those things to them, in a way that gives them back their information and shows them where some of that can be a disconnect, and allows them to process that. Not giving them the expectation to give me an answer. Just, “I can understand how you feel that way, but how do you look at that from [the perspective of] a person who has these other experiences?”
So now they have to digest that struggle of information. [I give] them time to process that, not overwhelming them, but maybe addressing one or two of those things and then a follow-up. I love giving movies, especially movies that are based on true stories or documentaries. Or I’ll send a podcast or an article that talks about this very same topic, and that’ll allow that person to really digest that and come back.
That was one of the tools that we used in the anti-racism challenge at the Haas School of Business. We adapted [a 21 day anti-racism challenge that Haas did over the summer], and we stretched it over a four-month period. We did one a week, and we talked about it in a small group where it was more intimate. It started out rough because everybody was kind of still guarded, but at the end, we couldn’t get people to stop sharing because the communication was so intimate. People could not wait for Friday, to have these conversations on these prompts and videos and podcasts and readings that really challenge what we thought we knew of America.
[That kind of information] was an eye-opener for me as I was going through my master’s program [in education]. I thought I knew a lot of these things, as African-American, being in the military and serving the country in America. And then I started reading about the history of education, and redlining, and housing, and all these different facets that directly affected the education system. It gave me a hunger to know more on how can we dismantle this. My passion and hunger to continue to educate myself on what that looks like gave me the tools and understanding to be able to have and maintain the conversations that I’m able to.
MR: What place does tension take in how you facilitate a conversation? Some people have a strong impulse to control tension, and we also know that when you allow tension, it can be a space for growth. How do you address tension when it comes up?
TW: The first thing to do is identify it and let it be recognized that it’s in the room. Tension also builds aggression and defense, and when you already have your defense up, everything that is said to you can seem like an attack. So it’s really trying to get people to understand that. To say “I see you’re upset right now, I understand the frustration that you have, but in that frustration we sometimes are not able to have the conversations that we need to because we’re so emotionally charged.” When you’re so in the weeds, you don’t have time to step back and see that there’s a bigger field. The first thing is to really have that recognized and owned, and then unpack that the best we can, while still moving forward with the conversation.
My wife says it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. It’s being able to understand the emotion that that person is feeling in that space. Body language is a telltale sign. [I] identify those things so that the person can recognize them, because many times we don’t understand how we look on the outside. [So I ask,] “You look upset…How can I help you? Because I want to make sure that we’re in the best head space to be able to have this conversation.”
MR: So you have a lot of tools that you bring to help transform the difficult feelings that people are having, to get into a productive space but not to shut them down.
TW: Right. You want to transform. Everybody wants to feel heard and feel seen. So if you discredit those feelings, then you already have discredited that person, because you’ve told them that their emotion doesn’t matter. It’s about seeing that person, hearing that person, and letting them internalize what is happening and find it within themselves.
MR: Is it fair to say that you believe that everybody has the potential to build the skills to understand other people, and to promote understanding? What’s your vision for how we get there, with everybody having those skills?
TW: I go back to listening to hear. In many conversations we’re not listening to hear, we’re listening to speak. And when you listen to speak you discredit what that other person is saying, because you’re not taking time to hear them. They’re telling you that they want this, and you can’t understand why they’re never happy. Well, it’s because this person says, I just need you to do this thing. And you’re missing it because you keep focusing on what you think it is.
If we listen to hear and not listen to speak, we can understand so much more about who we are as people. Every person wants to be heard, every person wants to be seen. That’s the reason we’re having this whole issue we’re having right now in America – one side doesn’t want to hear the other, and they’d rather call names to each other, not really sit down and say, if your view doesn’t align with mine let’s understand why. And I think that is the piece that makes the biggest difference, is just listening.
Inherent in conflict are difficult emotions—anxiety, anger, anguish—that tilt our equilibrium when in a space of vulnerability. In this environment, trauma often manifests as formidable feelings—not only those of others in the room, but also our own. When we work with people in conflict, we need to understand what trauma is, recognize when someone is in this state, and know what to do when a person is experiencing trauma. And our ability to shift between internal and external awareness is critical when trauma is in the room.
Trauma is not an event. Rather, it is the effect of the event laid unto our bodies and mind. Our response to situations and how easily we are taken off center is a result of our history, developmental issues, the past and present external environment, and internal factors that key up our nervous system and predispose us to trauma.
Our physiological response to trauma is our body’s perception that we are in danger and triggers our response to fight, fly, freeze, or submit. Our racing heart and shallow breathing send signals of duress to our brain, which responds into what can become a negative feedback loop between the brain and body. By closely observing the nonverbal signals from others as well as our own physiological responses, we may be better able to recognize when someone else is reacting from a state of trauma.
The indicators of trauma can be subtle and particularly challenging to perceive when working online. One way to compensate for the digital divide is to more explicitly feel out the room, such as asking participants about their feelings, acknowledging the atmosphere of the space, and observing reactions. A vital caveat to this process is maintaining inclusive language and not pinpointing an individual as the source of the tension— “it’s tough to go deeper on this issue” or “when we talk about such a sensitive time, it’s hard to think straight.”
If we feel a tightening in our chest before joining a call with clients, this response is likely tied to our anxious expectation about what might happen in the “Zoom” room. Understanding and calming our own emotions and responses helps us cultivate a settled state that anchors people in the room. Humans are open nervous systems—our eyes take in light, our ears hear sounds—and we are naturally affected and influenced by other open circuits. When we, the professionals, are settled in our bodies, our physiological responses, such as a slower and steadier heartbeat, naturally draw people to us and help them to become more settled. Furthermore, the more we feel inside our own skin, the less we will activate another person’s internal trauma network. Sometimes it may be as simple as interrupting the negative feedback cycle by everyone taking a drink of water, which creates a pause and a sense of safety as our body resets itself.
Although transitory, trauma is also ever present and when it finds footing in conflict, it can throw off everybody in the room. Conflict resolution professionals can help break the cycle of trauma and support the disputing parties from a place of compassion and understanding.
Catherine Conner interviewed Phuong Ertley, LMFT, who’s a trained trauma therapist of 21 years. Her background includes post-graduate studies and certification with the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, Somatic Experiencing studies with the Somatic Experiencing Training Institute, Attachment-Focused EMDR with the Laurel Parnell Institute and Somatic Resilience Training with Kathy Kain, PhD. Her understanding of the trauma presentation stems from the neurobiological research of Stephen Porges, MD, Allan Schore, PhD, and many others.
Hold Me Tight is, on its face, about couples therapy. Originally published in 2008, the book is designed for couples to be able to read together in a self-guided process, and the approach it lays out—Emotionally-Focused Therapy—is used by many couples therapists. (One therapist I know said, “I never felt like I was truly helping couples until I started using the method in this book!”)
But as a mediator and lawyer with no background in psychotherapy, who has a strong interest in helping people to repair and build their relationships through the power of understanding, I have found it to be both fascinating and helpful for supporting many kinds of connections between people.
Hold Me Tight looks at relationships, specifically romantic partnerships, through the lens of attachment theory. So, in a conflict between partners, the question is not just “who did what to whom?” or “what isn’t working in our communication dynamics?” or even “what specific issues are there, and what specific compromises might work?” Rather, the couple needs to attend directly to the connection between them, and to recognize and find ways to honor the need they each have for a secure attachment to the other. In the language of the Understanding-Based Model, this is an approach that “goes beneath the problem.”
The book isn’t perfect; for example, I felt an underlying heteronormativity in it, even though it makes gestures of inclusivity towards same-sex couples. But the accessible and practical knowledge it offers about attachment needs, which underlie many of our hopes, fears, and behaviors in relationships, was, for me, a game-changer for understanding parties in conflict.
Mediators are often expected to maintain a sage-like persona when working with parties in conflict. In lieu of separating the personal from professional self, we advocate for bringing who you are as a person into your professional role. In our experiences, we have found that being yourself can be one of the most powerful assets in conflict resolution.
Acknowledging and recognizing your own pain, internal conflicts, competing priorities, and other feelings connects people on a level of a common humanity that allows the parties to come further out and work in a different way. Moreover, being yourself provides a chance to not only be defined by who you are as a professional. This is a liberating experience that allows the mediator to follow intuition, a key part of human interaction.
Of course, this does not mean to be yourself without boundaries. The caveat here is to bring yourself fully in the room as the mediator and allow yourself to engage as another party. While drawing on experiences is a powerful thing, this is not the space to bring forth your own problems or your own solutions. Furthermore, it is critical that the mediator upholds the fundamental role to facilitate understanding without telling the parties what to do. The effort is to facilitate conversation and not necessarily to reach resolution, unless that is where the parties drive it.
When you no longer hide behind a mask of a ‘professional stance’, it then allows the people in conflict to also be themselves, sans persona, and everybody involved has an opportunity to expand their understanding. To understand more about how to do this, join us on January 25 for our webinar, Being Yourself in the Room.
We live in a polarized world. This is particularly true in today’s U.S.A., where people divided along political lines have markedly different stances on a wide range of social, economic, and environmental issues. Our own views of the world can now be supported by the narratives presented in cable news networks, algorithms compiling our social media feeds, the websites we visit, and other forms of media that we consume to stay “informed” about our world.
The sharp contrast in understanding became even more poignant over the summer, as the wave of protests demanding Americans reckon with the injustices carried out against people of color hit a fever pitch in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Americans seemed to divide into two main camps—supporters of Black Lives Matter and those supporting police and law enforcement institutions. Over the summer, the evening news led with footage from cities all across the country of peaceful protests, buildings burning, clashes, and news conferences from law enforcement agencies.
Then, on a Sunday in late August, videos emerged on social media of a white police officer shooting a Black man in the back seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin. As the sun set, protesters gathered at the city’s neoclassical stone courthouse. Later that night, dump trucks blocking the courthouse were set on fire and over the next two days, thousands gathered in peaceful protest during the day, while at night businesses were looted and burned. On the third night, militias swarmed the town, with one person from Illinois killing two protesters from Kenosha.
The events that unfolded in Kenosha struck a chord with Americans and the town became the token of suburban America. For me, this was deeply personal. Kenosha is my home town and I now live just 40 minutes to the north in Milwaukee, which itself is notorious for its ranking as the worst city for Black Americans and the most segregated city in the nation. Overnight, Kenosha was the focal point of all my interactions with family, friends, and my networks. My social media feeds were flooded with videos, photos, and stories from the city I lived in for the first 18 years of my life. Suddenly, I was at odds with lifelong friends and family members.
I realized this would be a good opportunity to try out some of the skills I have been learning since joining the Center for Understanding in Conflict’s team earlier this year. I had a lot of feelings about this issue to process, but I also needed to understand the perspectives and experiences of others. I headed down to Kenosha to talk with a civilian, Tina, and a cop, Chris. Using looping —a method of listening with the goal of understanding—I learned about their experiences.
Going Down the Why Trail and The “Internal V”
A fundamental part of the Understanding-based Model is more deeply grasping why a particular issue is so important. By going down the Why Trail, we find out what is below the surface in a conflict. By using the “Internal V” model to pay attention to our inner reactions, we are able to be more open to understanding someone else and connecting to them. I decided to try these tools to better understand my own judgments and feelings.
Why was the unrest in Kenosha so important to me?
Because it is my home town, a place that I consider safe and where so many people I care about live. I have experienced civil unrest while living in post-revolutionary Tunisia and more recently in Chile, where I was tear gassed and chased down by military police just for being there. Yet, for me, Kenosha has always been a safe and secure place. I have been watching the world unravel firsthand for years, yet never did I anticipate curfews and militia in my home town.
Why should I care about this issue?
White privilege—my entire life I have benefited from it, and it comes at the expense of people of color. Justice and equality are core components of my value system and identity, and I have the responsibility to be part of a collective effort to help balance the scales.
Why do I want to empathize more with Jacob Blake than the police officer?
My husband is a person of color, and my little brother is biracial, half Black and half white. When I heard about Jacob Blake, I couldn’t help but immediately think of my family, then of Blake’s family. When I hear the names of the long list of people of color killed by the police—such as Joel Acevado, Dontre Hamilton, or Sylville Smith—it brings such feelings of grief at thinking of all that is lost.
As I worked through my feelings, my fear and grief culminated into rage. No matter where I go in this world, injustice strips away the potential of humankind. People are dying as we alienate each other, and none of us is better for it in the end.
Yet, I have this deeply rooted optimism, and even in all of my negative emotions, I cannot help but think of the potential that springs from people coming together to solve problems. After all, a fundamental concept in the Understanding-based model is that the people who are in conflict are the ones who carry the solution.
Articulating my judgments, and their companion emotions, offers a clarity in my own understanding of the issue. Being able to name the emotions inside myself makes it easier to empathize and connect with others, such as with Tina and Chris as they share their experiences.
Looping is a technique that helps focus dialogue and develop understanding during difficult conversations. Initially, looping was developed for mediation; however, over the decades, it has become a useful tool in a variety of professions, including journalism.
Looping is a four step process that includes: listen to understand, offer your understanding, observe their reaction, and polish your understanding before moving on. Looping requires that you are listening with the intent of understanding what they are saying. Journalist Amanda Ripley, who uses looping when she interviews sources, stresses that when looping, “don’t think you’re going to persuade somebody that they’re wrong. It’s to learn something you didn’t know.”
When developing understanding, it is critical to listen more and better. This includes asking questions about how a person feels as they talk about the issue, as well as where their emotions or position are coming from. Additionally, asking questions such as “What do you think the other group thinks of you?” helps expose people to the other tribe, which also provides pivotal foundation when developing understanding.
Deepen the conversation by going beneath the problem by asking questions that get at motivations. Questions such as“Why is this important to you?” or “How has this conflict affected your life?” provide opportunities to go down the why trail and truly understand what is important to the person you are talking to.
When working through complex issues, asking questions to amplify contradictions, such as “Where do you feel torn?” or “What is oversimplified about this issue?” provides opportunities to investigate tension. It is important to notice the dynamic for further information.
It may also help to ask questions for the speaker to widen the lens. Asking questions such as “How do you decide which ‘facts’ to trust?” or “What is dividing us as a country?” provides insight into how the person constructs their reality. This in turn supports autonomy and honors connection.
To counter confirmation bias, ask the speaker to talk about what they know about the “other side.” Ask them to help you make sense of something being said by the other side. This process creates space to recognize that others also own the conflict.
Ripley notes that “we want to believe deeply if we share facts, people will believe us and agree.” Yet, that has not been working, and Ripley comments that the only way she can be useful when engaging in high conflict conversations is to be genuinely curious. “If you’re genuinely curious, people around you can get curious and can tell people stories that spark curiosity and challenge their assumptions…but it is impossible to feel curious when you feel threatened.”
In my interviews with Tina and Chris, I apply looping to ensure my understanding of their experiences to the unrest in Kenosha. As they share their experiences, I prompt them to elaborate with questions geared to help ensure that I understand their perspectives and I clarify my understanding with them throughout the process. Often, I repeat back what I have heard, and ask if what I am repeating is accurate. Along the way, they correct or affirm. Below are excerpts from our conversations using looping.
Tina is warm and bubbly. She studies communication at the local technical college while working full time at a local family-owned shoe retailer. She is also expecting her first child. Before the interview, she excitedly shows me the freshly painted galactic-themed nursery in the home she shares with her partner. Tina is also one of the 17.6% of Kenoshans who identify as Hispanic or Latino.
She is sitting on the far end of her couch, her right hand resting on her baby bump as I ask her to talk about what happened in Kenosha. “Well, I saw the gentlemen get shot in the back seven times, I saw the video of that. Somebody shared it on Facebook and it autoplayed on my feed and it was pretty jarring to see.”
Tina looks off to the left and gives her stomach a small rub as she continues. “I’d never seen anything like that happen here ever. You see it happen other places, but when you see it where you live, it’s kind of messed up to think about. I immediately thought, this is going to hit the fan. And it did,” she concludes with a curt laugh.
When I ask her to clarify what she means by “messed up”, she comments, “We’ve been seeing this stuff happen, but it felt not as real because [it was] something you don’t think is going to happen where you live.” She felt Kenosha was a safe place, although “there’s a pretty clear divide in this town where the nice and bad areas are.”
As she extrapolates on her experiences, she notes that for her, it “makes sense why it happened.” She comments on how the local government works to appease one demographic in particular—“white people over 40.” She mentions a local councilman who had tried to start a coalition for young people, but other council members “shut it down” right away. Furthermore, she comments that “parts of town have no resources. There are no groceries on the east side of Green Bay [Road] and you’re screwed if you don’t have a car.”
When she watched the video of Jacob Blake, she couldn’t help but wonder if the police could’ve handled it differently. Tina recalls seeing six cop cars pull up to apprehend somebody in her neighborhood. She muses about what a weird spectacle it was to watch a dozen cops apprehend one individual, and whether that many were necessary, or if there could have been a better way of handling the situation. “Like with [Blake], couldn’t the four officers have just dog piled him? There’s gotta be a different way.”
She speaks a little more quickly as she adds, “I’m not anti-law, I’ve always respected cops in town, but I know [about] racial scandals within the KPD [Kenosha Police Department]—well, heard allegedly. I’ve never had a personal problem with them.” She is very conscientious about relating the things she hears, and repeatedly as she shares her insights, notes that she takes things with a “grain of salt.”
Again, she refers to her preconceived notion that what she sees in the news and on social media won’t happen where she lives, to her. However, she adds, “being a minority, it’s always in the back of my head—what could happen. I haven’t encountered too much but I’ve always felt on edge, really on edge, where could this go and what could happen?”
Despite this jarring experience, and the fear and anxiety tied to her reality, Tina is also empathetic, acknowledging that the police handle too much and this is a contributing factor part of a larger, more complicated issue.
Nor does the unrest hinder her optimism, a trait that she is known for among her friends. “There are a lot of fundraisers for uptown and downtown. I saw the community coming together to try and heal,” she says. She criticizes a Buzzfeed article accusing the community of whitewashing BLM when painting the murals. “There were a lot of messages supporting BLM and I personally knew a lot of the people who were both protesters and members of the cleanup.”
Chris joined the Kenosha police department earlier this year—before George Floyd’s death became a tipping point in public opinion about policing. He is a likeable guy who is friendly, helpful, and handy. Throughout our conversation, he maintains a confidently calm demeanor, which I imagine serves him well in policing. Like 89% of his colleagues on the police force, Chris is white.
Coming into the interview, I was aware that I carried bias against police. Typically, I would approach this situation as more of a debate and would equate my silence to complacency. I recall Ripley explaining that “you don’t have to argue or agree, there’s this third way.” When we had spoken, she had highlighted the importance that looping is not equivalent to complacency: “At first, I thought if I didn’t argue, I was complicit and part of the problem, but it doesn’t work that way…When you loop people, they don’t mistake it for agreement—it’s more like you’re listening and trying to understand.”
Like civilians, Chris learned about the shooting from the video spread across social media in the hours following the incident. His initial thought was that “this was another big shooting that you know happens as an officer. [It] didn’t feel too out of place.”
When I asked him about his feelings the first night, he commented that he went to bed nervous about work the next day. On the morning after the shooting, he got to work and saw 70 calls pending when there are normally zero. “It was shocking to get to work and having to take burglary calls, finding six businesses in a row looted. I must’ve taken 20 calls that day,” he recalls.
According to Chris, “On the second night, things got more serious” and a curfew was declared. When it came to how he felt personally, he noted that “it was a very shaky feeling hearing people who I know that were in the military that this was how it felt when they were in Iraq—with the fence and the National Guard. It was kind of jarring.” Professionally, however, he felt secure with the National Guard surrounding the police station and courthouse. With their support, he was able to focus on doing his job—even with all of the unrest, there were still car accidents and other things that happen every day that police deal with.
As Chris talks about the surrealness of the “warzone” comparisons, I cannot help but think of my own experiences with police during periods of unrest over the years. I recall the day when citizens burned several police stations in Tunisia, and my seething anger when the police waved their gun at my car as I drove a coworker home that evening. I also remember the Chilean national police standing in a line facing the yells and taunts of protestors, minutes later spraying us with tear gas and shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. And the police standing in line outside the Milwaukee police station, watching us in silence as we chanted and jeered. I realize that in my own experiences coupled with a desire to understand the experiences of people of color and law enforcement, that I compartmentalized the police as the “other”, subsequently dehumanizing them in the process. Never before had I thought about what they were feeling, the people behind the riot shields, the families anxiously waiting for them at home.
Chris does not directly know any of the officers involved with the shooting. However, he notes that there is still “a brotherhood that comes along with this career and it strengthens my concern for the officer, what happened to him, and the situation he goes through.” For Chris, a few hours difference could have meant he was among the responders to what seems to be a normal call that suddenly turns into international news.
One of his most surprising moments from this entire experience came when he was responding to calls in uptown, where five buildings had been burned down. The images shown on the national news were mostly from downtown Kenosha, which are predominantly white-owned businesses. Less common in circulation were the photos from uptown, where most of the businesses destroyed are owned by people of color. Uptown is also a higher-crime area and the police are frequently present.
While responding to the calls, the officers received “overwhelming support from people in a neighborhood that were well aware of us as law enforcement officers. People were coming up and thanking us—people who were angered at what happened to the neighborhood.” This unexpected support felt phenomenal and he also realized that even though this was a high-crime area, the people loved their neighborhood and phenomenal people lived there. Chris explained that the shops that burned left people in the neighborhood nowhere nearby to get their basic needs. “Transit even shut down, so it just added an extra step to the issues,” he adds.
Chris comments that his job gives him a close up understanding of what people are going through. “It was difficult to hear them talk about and to understand their struggles,” he admits. He talks about taking reports for businesses that don’t have insurance and wondering how they will be able to come back. He acknowledges that as a white man he is not going to be able to fully understand their experiences. “It’s hard not to be biased, but I try to keep an open mind. I try to do my best and understand them and their feelings.”
He is earnest as he talks about Uptown, his genuine concern for the area etched in his voice. “In a neighborhood like Uptown, that’s such a neighborhood where it’s close knit and people stick to that neighborhood and it might not have the ability to recover. It worries me what that neighborhood could turn into. Hopefully it will rebuild from the ashes and not turn into a block of empty buildings that could attract more trouble.”
As I prepped Tina and Chris for their interviews and we were making small talk, Chris shared a story from while he was on duty during the protests. All dressed in riot gear, he watched a Black Lives Matter protester and a Blue Lives Matter protester get into a verbal argument. They started yelling at each other and the officers worried the situation would turn violent. Suddenly, the pair stopped yelling and one of the protesters offered the other to get a beer and talk about their views. It de-escalated quickly, much to the surprise of Chris and his colleagues. The fact that Kenosha was the backdrop, the town with more bars per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.A. (or so the local legend goes), it is only appropriate that their first agreement involved beer.
For Tina, Chris, and myself, we all found this experience jarring for different ways. Yet, we also all found optimism from our varying experiences, commonalities that help bridge our divides. Since my interviews, I have found that using looping has been beneficial in having difficult conversations with family and friends, especially with those whose opinions fall farther from my own spot on the spectrum.
As we bid adieu to the infamous 2020, the divisions that define today’s America will continue to challenge our conversations with our family, friends, and acquaintances. Even as this dreadful year concludes, prominent polarization seems to only increase its entrenchment. If we can practice understanding, perhaps we can weave back together our communities and our world so our society can finally create the spaces for freedom, equality, and justice for all.