Today’s blog is about engaging in dialogue about controversial issues. I share my own experiences speaking out as the mom of a gay son and discuss ideas, principles and skills to go beyond “preaching to the choir” and make room for all voices—especially those we disagree with.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
—Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Among the many hats I wear, I am the mother of an amazing son, who is proud to be gay. Being Danny’s mother inspired me to co-found a group called Somos Familia, which promotes community and family acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer (LGBTQ) youth. Through this work, I have become convinced that engaging in open, authentic dialogue with people who don’t think like me is one of the most important things I can do. As someone who is accustomed to being a strong advocate, I have discovered that this type of dialogue requires new ways of thinking and being and a whole new set of tools.
In the past I avoided conversations with people who differed with me on controversial or sensitive issues. In recent years, I have heard many voices echo a similar message; that people who promote social progress can only reach our goals if we go beyond “preaching to the choir.” This means talking about topics that are often seen as “undiscussable” and making room for voices that are not “politically correct” or that we may even see as harmful or offensive.
A few years ago, Somos Familia members participated in the YES Institute’s Communication Solutions™ course, which provides a valuable model for inclusive dialogue on subjects that are controversial or taboo. The trainers led us through a role-play in which the “audience” made anti-gay comments and we practiced responding as facilitators. The instructions were to acknowledge and reflect back the comments without making them wrong. We were not to argue or criticize, but to engage in a practice of “recreation”, accepting people and their viewpoints exactly as they were. Only after fully hearing and accepting these viewpoints, could we “respond with generosity” and offer an alternative perspective. Rather than shutting down the conversation, this approach allowed space to engage in authentic dialogue.
Whether speaking with families about LGBTQ acceptance or working with non-profits on issues of race, privilege and power, I continually remind myself to acknowledge different viewpoints, even those that trigger deep emotions. Here are some basic principles that help ground me during these times:
- Value and accept people whose beliefs and values conflict with our own. Remember that everyone has prejudice, and that people have the capacity to change. Focus on what we appreciate or value in that person, rather than demonizing or dehumanizing them.
- Accept, value and make room for perspectives that differ from our own. Open doors to dialogue rather than shutting down communication by criticizing or judging. Accepting or validating ideas doesn’t mean that we agree, nor does it mean we’re giving in or surrendering our own principles.
- Practice self-care. There may be times when you are so triggered that you cannot respond with generosity. Be aware of your own feelings, needs and experiences. Depending on the situation, you might choose to take a break and engage in communication at another time.
Following are some essential skills for bridging divides. It is important to be authentic in practicing these skills. Our “way of being” communicates as much as what we say or do. If we merely “go through the motions”, our inauthenticity will come across in our body language and tone.
- Listen and reflect back what is conveyed. Accept the person’s beliefs exactly as they are and let them know that they are heard. Don’t parrot back each word. “Recreate” the essence of their communication, which may include what is said and feelings that are expressed. For example, “I hear that you are worried that teaching about gay people in class will conflict with the values you are teaching your child.”
- Acknowledge what you value in different perspectives you hear. Let the person know that you appreciate something about their concern or their intent. For example, “I appreciate your courage in speaking out about something you feel strongly about,” or “I appreciate your concern for your child’s wellbeing.”
- Share your perspective or clarifying information with generosity. Don’t argue, defend, criticize or insist that your position is “right”. Express yourself with kindness without trying to control the outcome. You cannot convince people to change their views. You can, however, support them in rethinking their ideas. For example, you might say, “Here’s some information that might help address your concern…” or “Here’s a perspective I can share about this…”
In closing, we can maintain a true commitment to our principles and make room for viewpoints that are different from our own. Arguing positions from a right/wrong paradigm does not bridge differences. Hearts and minds can open to our messages when we listen to and accept people exactly the way they are.