Complicating the Narratives

Complicating the Narratives

What if journalists covered controversial issues differently — based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious?

By Amanda Ripley / Solutions Journalism Network

 

Amanda attended our Self Reflection in Action training in February 2018 during her research for her work on changing journalism, particularly focusing on the question of how to address conflict.  Amanda is a thoughtful writer who inspires journalists to bring new skills and direction to their work for the benefit of all of us.  We highly recommend her article.  Here is the beginning of her article at Solutions Journalism with a link to read the rest.

Last summer, 60 Minutes brought 14 people — half Republicans, half Democrats — to a converted power plant in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. The goal was to encourage Americans to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree. Oprah Winfrey led the conversation, her debut as a 60 Minutes Special Correspondent — and her return to TV news, where she’d started her career as a Baltimore anchor four decades earlier.

It was an extraordinary opportunity. For three hours, nine cameras captured the group’s conversation about Twitter, President Trump, health care and the prospect of a new civil war. The crew even built a special table, just for the occasion. The edited 16-minute segment would represent the first of a series of planned 60 Minutes shows focused on a divided America. It was a chance for a respected news outlet to go beyond the clichés and name-calling and excavate richer, deeper truths, at a time of profound division in America.

In the end, that was not what happened. The episode drew nearly 15 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched TV show of the week, according to Nielsen ratings. But the on-air conversation was strangely dull and superficial.

First, a heavyset man named Tom said he loved Trump more every day; next, a blonde woman named Jennifer said Trump made her feel sick to her stomach. Later, Winfrey went around the table asking each person for one word to describe the typical Trump voter, then repeating their answers. “Frustrated,” said Tom. “Frustrated,” said Winfrey.

What went wrong? How could one of the most successful, relatable interviewers in American history create such uninspired television?

Deep in their bones, talk-show hosts (like journalists generally) understand certain things about human psychology: we know how to grab the brain’s attention and stimulate fear, sadness or anger. We can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories require conflict, characters and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations.

As politicians have become more polarized, we have increasingly allowed ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults instead of exposing their motivations. Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation. Long before the 2016 election, the mainstream news media lost the trust of the public, creating an opening for misinformation and propaganda. If the purpose of journalism is to “see the public into fuller existence,” as Jay Rosen once wrote, it’s hard to conclude that we are succeeding.

“Conflict is important. It’s what moves a democracy forward,” says journalist Jeremy Hay, co-founder of Spaceship Media, which helps media outlets engage divided communities. “But as long as journalism is content to let conflict sit like that, journalism is abdicating the power it has to help people find a way through that conflict.”

But what else can we do with conflict, besides letting it sit? We’re not advocates, and we shouldn’t be in the business of making people feel better. Our mission is not a diplomatic one. So what options does that leave?

To find out, I spent the past three months interviewing people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it. I met psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths. They do it every day — with livid spouses, feuding business partners, spiteful neighbors. They have learned how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation.

To read the rest, click here.

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Conflict & The Black Family by Lacey C. Wilson

I grew up in a small town in Central Texas. My family, on the other hand, was not so small. My maternal grandmother, a Cherokee/African-American woman birthed 14 children, more than half of which were born in the home, including my own mother. This large offspring led to a host of aunts and uncles, nieces, and nephews. Sundays were reserved for family get-togethers that were filled with front yard BBQs and uncles attempting to out-dance each other. In the midst of our togetherness was an array of drunken tempers that (if out of control) could put someone in the hospital.

I have no doubt that my personal struggle with anxiety and sensitivity to conflict began in my grandmother’s front yard. I can say that the converse is also true: my resilience and my unyielding desire to create change within my community were born in that front yard as well.

I have since been fascinated with the conflict dynamic in Black families, particularly my role as an LGBT member of my Black family. This fascination is what drew me to conflict work and the legal profession in the first place; not only was my resilience and unyielding desire bubbling but my innate longing to heal and solve my community’s conflict. Witnessing my own family’s resistance to mental health, medical assistance and legal help due to racism and oppression led me to realize that my grandmother’s front yard inspired me to not only break the cycle of abuse but to become part of the solution.

So how do you communicate differently with your partner who makes you feel like you are the one to blame? How do you create safety in sharing your own feelings? How do you walk away from a conversation with your child or spouse, feeling like you’re more connected to them and not pushing them away? How can we approach all of these questions with respect to Black culture? Though I could write for days, I’ll start with two healthy suggestions.

GET COMFORTABLE WITH VULNERABILITY

We all have to not only realize the role that vulnerability plays in conflict but also admit that its role is essential. (Many people raised in Black families have not experienced this nor have they seen it modeled.) Looking through a lens of healing conflict: when you are hurt, sad or scared you need to be willing to explain this in a way your partner or child can understand you without feeling blamed or accountable. This description of negative emotion is not weakness; in fact, it is the complete opposite.

I grew up surrounded by women who very rarely cried or had conversations with me when I was sad. I grew up surrounded by men whom either ignored the existence of conflict or solved it with loud, hurtful words or a punch in the face. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Girl, stop your cryin’…you’ll be aight” or “boy please, wipe your eyes.. ain’t nobody got time for that”. I quickly inherited the notion that sharing negative emotions was a sign of weakness and rarely did I see these emotions communicated effectively. Thus, I never quite understood the notion of “vulnerability”. To be vulnerable is to be open, honest and raw. To be vulnerable is to know yourself and to be willing to communicate your feelings even when you feel unsure, alone or out numbered. To be vulnerable is to be willing to solve conflict. Without this vulnerability, I can’t imagine conflict resolution getting too far – in any environment.

LEARN EMPATHY

The blame game is old. The loudest person does not truly “win” the argument. Without the ability to empathize with your family members, walls are built. In Black communities, this inability to empathize during conflict creates what I am calling Black walls. In my Black family, each brick is laid with passive aggressive communication, the learned coping skill of shutting down, dismissal of others’ feelings, blame, and a healthy dose of shame. Each time a brick is laid, an opportunity to resolve conflict is lost and the wall gets tougher and tougher to break down.

With the aforementioned resistance toward communicating negative feelings and the lack of modeled empathy, one could already imagine the issues of conflict that arise. I must admit, throughout my entire life I did not views these as conflicts that were worth addressing. I viewed them as ways of life. Even when I began my own journey of self-growth and began my marriage which vows described vulnerability to the max: I never saw these conflicts in my Black family as ones that could be solved. I accepted them as they were and I code-switched (in a way) when dealing with conflict with them. These Black walls can be high and the bricks can be plentiful but each brick laid can be wiggled loose when practicing empathy.

Breaking down the walls that keep us from being willing to face our feelings and deal with conflict is a daunting task for any – not only those raised in Black families. I could honestly write on this topic for days. My role in my family and my culture has been a source of great strength as well as a great challenge. As a daughter, a sister, a niece, a wife, a mediator and a law student, I am learning more about myself every single day in regards to how I frame and handle conflict. Realizing how our own upbringing, culture and race shapes our ability to solve conflict is a huge part of breaking down these walls. My own intersectionality as a Black lesbian female has proven to be one of my strongest tools as a mediator. This might be a surprise to some; to others, it may be completely understood. I look forward to more discussions around conflict and culture!

Lacey, a Central Texas native, is a community mediator and legal apprentice, currently living in the Bay Area in California with her wife. She is studying law through the California Law Office Study Program. She encourages individuals to engage in a dialogue that cultivates understanding while seeking to mitigate the cultural, socio-economic, racial and gender biases that may keep us in conflict.

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Living in Tension

by Gary Friedman

 

A key skill for conflict professionals is the ability to live with the variety of tensions that present themselves to us as a regular part of our work life, particularly the tension of sitting in the middle of differences between parties. Now, many of us are being tested as never before by the political situation, where we are regularly facing a world of surprises, challenges, disappointments, evoking rampant fear. At least, I notice these many reactions within myself.

How do we manage ourselves during these troubled times? How will our efforts at work to live with tensions help us deal with the larger world? And how can we bring our understanding of what is happening in the larger world to help our clients deal with what is happening in their lives?

I don’t know. That is a fact that I have to accept. That’s hard to swallow but it’s also reassuring. So much of my life seemed quite figured out prior to November 8th, but the trauma of the election and subsequent events has opened me to a deep recognition of how much less I understood about the country than I thought. The world seems turned upside down a lot of the time, with daily events that only add to the challenge of living in these times.

While more than just a little unsettling, I have also discovered a major upside and interesting opportunity presented to me (us). There is a famous Buddhist saying “Not knowing is most intimate.” What I understand this to mean is that when I am clearest about what is happening within me and between me and others, this often creates a distance between me and others, and even within me, that is not present when I am struggling, confused, fearful and vulnerable.

The vulnerability that comes from not knowing creates an opening in me. I can feel more connected to more of the world when I admit my uncertainties than when I settle for an answer that closes off my curiosity. This can also happen between me and the parties I’m trying to help in my work.

With the trauma of Trump, there is no pretending that I understand all of what is going on, both outside me and within me. When I realize this and bring that attitude to my work, I feel more openness to the parties and recognize that easy answers are often not so useful as staying with uncertainty. In fact, uncertainty is closest to the truth of our situation. Anyone who believes that they know what is going to happen next is often disappointed to find out how wrong they are. That has never been more clear than it is now in the wider world.

If we can find the courage to recognize that we don’t know, and live with the tension of that, we have a better chance of expanding our understanding of ourselves, each other and the world. So all of our work as conflict professionals to learn and practice the skill of living with the tension of not knowing can serve us to better face the world now, and facing the world can help us be better conflict professionals. Perhaps a small silver lining but potentially important for us all.

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Resting in the Openness of Mind

By Norman Fischer

 

Resting in the openness of mind.  Sometimes it’s called not knowing. Why would we have to know everything all the time? Why do we have to be so knowledgeable, so smart, so in control?  We don’t! There’s no need to figure everything out.  We can just be alive.  We can breathe in and breathe out and let go and just trust our life, trust our body. Our body and our life know what to do.

The problem is to let them do it, to relax and let them guide us. Of course life is complicated and we have many things to work out in our material and psychological lives. But also we can find a place of refuge sometimes — in our own life, in our own breath, in our own presence.  Maybe the easiest way to do this is also the simplest way: just stop and take a breath.  One breath, maybe two or three.  You could do this now. Take a breath and return to the openness of mind.  Breathing in, breathing out, and in the feeling of the breath, noticing whatever is there and letting go of it, easily, gently.  Even if you are bored with yourself, even if you have some disturbing things going on in your life that produce disturbing thoughts and feelings in you, it is still possible in this precise moment (even now, as you are reading) to notice breathing, notice the body, notice the feeling of being present in this moment of time. This will relax you. This is what it feels like to rest in the openness of mind.

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Conversations That Could Make a Difference

by Gary Friedman

In this post-election period, the trauma that we have experienced as a result of the divisive campaign has taken a huge toll on many of us.

The dumbed down conversations and demeaning, personal attacks that have marked the political discourse have left us with a deep down disgust and alienation. We’ve witnessed and even participated in mean-spirited and nasty exchanges that have left us feeling spent, grieving the loss of dignity and respect that we deserve for ourselves and our fellow citizens.

Now many of us feeling shattered, helpless, fearful of what comes next and what will happen to the country we love.

The national discourse has polarized the country. Each side has demonized the other, and treated efforts to talk with disbelief, disrespect, insults, name-calling, and threats issued from rage and fear.

Attack and defense, righteousness, talking past each other. For those of us in the conflict business, this is familiar territory. People come to us like this this all the time. And as mediators or conflict professionals, we have helped hundreds, thousands of others presenting themselves just like this to get through to each other and to find a different way of talking. We know how to do this.

We know that deep layers of grief, fear and pain underlie peoples’ experience and leave them trapped in those feelings. And we know that when those feelings are unearthed, expressed and understood, they reveal commonalities as well as differences, which can bring people together to solve problems.

We understand that our natural self-protective instincts keep us from being more open. Yet we also understand that the cost of staying hidden is a continued isolation, separation through the fears and judgments that create the walls between us.

And we know what is possible in the face of this kind of conflict. When we can reach the level of vulnerability that comes from creating a safe place for people to feel and talk from a place of depth and caring, the atmosphere changes and constructive dialogue can emerge.

This is what can happen with the political dialogue.

Imagine what it would be like if we could bring our skills and experience to bear to help others and ourselves create a dialogue between what is being called the red and blue to heal the wounds that we are all carrying?
What would it be like to restore a sense of hope to our lives, especially when we know how many people have been injured by the prejudices at have been expressed and even championed at the highest level?

What I’m suggesting is that those of us in the field of conflict look to find opportunities to create small groups of people interested in coming together to increase their understanding of what is happening and open a dialogue at the level of our personal and political identities. Through developing pockets of understanding with others in honest, difficult and painful exchanges, we can create a more inclusive framework that can be contagious.

The principles and techniques that we have been working from can form the underpinnings of such dialogue, and let us bring safety, constructive dialogue and depth to our exchanges.

This is particularly true for those of us with experience in working together with conflict participants in the same room. Consider what it might be like if the following principles were used to guide a personal political conversation.

1. Emphasize the power of understanding. As an alternative to coercion or attack and defense, we could agree to operate from this intention, and let it underpin the dialogue. We often say that the test of a worthwhile conversation is whether the participants come away with a deeper understanding of themselves, the others, or the larger reality. Keeping our eye on this ball could make a difference.

2. Pay attention to how we are talking with each other, as well as what we’re saying. This could help us create a constructive dynamic that could make a difference. Making agreements about how we talk to each other can contribute to the safety and openness we’d hope to find.

3. Recognize the limitations of the right-wrong framework. Doing this could lead us to an exploration of deeper truths that we all experience as human beings trying to find a way to coexist with some degree of harmony.

4. Bring the attitude of “looking for possibility in the face of impossibility.” This can help us light the motivations that are there, often buried by our need to protect ourselves from disappointment.

5. Uncover and operate from the deep motivations that make us want have these conversations. It will not be enough to talk to each other in this moment of crisis and pain. The key will be to sustain a new kind of dialogue that could spread and underpin similar efforts that could make a difference to us personally and to the body politic.

If we understand that the tools we use every day in facing conflict can serve us and our communities now, we have an extraordinary opportunity to help bridge the painful gaps that have divided Red and Blue, neighbor and neighbor.

So the first question we need to answer is whether and how we can find others who are similarly inclined to be interested in having these conversations.

The next question is for us as conflict resolvers used to helping others whose conflicts are limited to their lives. How do we deal with our own personal reactions, which are inevitable in these conversations and could get in the way? We’ll be talking about that in our next newsletter.

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