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Divided we fall - and we sure are divided

This column was published on the Standard-Times editorial page July 11, 2004.

by Greg Stone

Do you know a friend - perhaps a family member - who you canıt talk to about George Bush? Or perhaps Bill Clinton? Or maybe Ralph Nader? Or the war in Iraq? Gay marriage? The Christian right? Homophobia? Dick Cheney? Personal injury lawyers? Insurance companies? Overpaid CEOs?

If you do, youıre not alone. Iım about to go to a family reunion and I can guarantee you that just about every one of those topics will be out of bounds - unless I want to break up the party and go home early. But it doesnıt have to be that way. Thereıs one simple solution. Listen!

Thatıs it: Listen. Listen actively. Listen compassionately.

Sounds easy, but listening is a skill - an attitude really - that seems to have all but vanished from our world. Certainly you wonıt find it among the politicians. Itıs rare in the pundits. Itıs anathema to television journalists, not to mention people who appear on those issue-oriented TV shows and yell at one another. Yelling makes for exciting TV - and stupid human relations. Everyoneıs trying to score - no one learns a thing.

But donıt learn to listen just to be one of the good guys - learn to listen because if you donıt, you will be left behind. Stop listening and you stop learning, and you eventually end up mired in a swamp of your own ideas with no way out. You will be a broken record, intellectually dead and bankrupt of any new ideas.

Over the past year I have become more and more aware of something called ³active listening,² and a related topic, ³compassionate listening.² And that has led me to a wonderful activity called ³Conversation Cafe.² Conversation Cafe is something weıve been experimenting with in three of the local Quaker meetings, but itıs not a Quaker invention. The basic rules for it have been laid down on an Internet site for some time and applied at length in other places around the nation and the world.

I stumbled across the cafe concept after I found political demonstrations frustrating. I carried a sign for peace and I doubt that I accomplished anything except to cheer those who already agreed with me and rile those who didnıt. Once in a while someone might yell at me from a passing car, or give me a thumbs up. Neither constituted communications. So I went looking for a way to communicate - not to sell my ideas, but to converse in an honest way where everyone can say what he or she thinks and everyone - including me - listens with respect and full attention. .

A Conversation Cafe is designed to tackle just this problem: How to have useful conversations about really touchy subjects through a process that encourages listening and provides plenty of opportunity to listen. Here are the essential rules of the game, modified only slightly from whatıs at the Conversation Cafe web site.

First, all participants agree to the following:

Acceptance: Suspend judgment as best you can.

Listen: With respect.

Silence: Pause for about a minute after someone has spoken to consider what you have heard.

Curiosity: Seek to understand rather than persuade.

Diversity: Invite and honor all points of view.

Sincerity: Speak what has personal heart and meaning.

Brevity: Go for honesty and depth but donıt go on and on.

Once theyıve agreed to these points, the participants follow this process.

Assemble up to 8 people plus a host,a hearty topic, a ³talking object,² and time (60-90 min.). Host explains process and agreements. (A Œtalking object² can be any meaningless thing - a tennis ball, a candle - that gets handed to the person who is about to speak.)

Round 1: Pass around the talking object; each person speaks briefly to the topic, no feedback or response. Silence follows each speaker.

Round 2: Again with talking object, each person deepens his or her own comments or speaks to what has meaning now.

Dialogue: Open, spirited conversation. Use talking object if there is domination, contention, or lack of focus.

Final Round: With talking object, each person says briefly what was meaningful to him or her.

Weıve found that to do this we need 90 minutes. You may tag on another 15 minutes for folks arriving, finding a table, and getting a cup of coffee. But having a time limit is helpful.

My own experience with this - just three sessions so far - is that I find it deeply refreshing. We havenıt had as widely varying opinions as I expected, but I come away energized by new ideas and with a greater sense of community. I have heard things I donıt agree with - and as I have listened, I have found that I have more in common than I thought I had with people I assumed held a point of view that I thought was hopelessly different than my own.

In short - I start to feel my own point of view is less important than it seemed and what is important is that we learn to appreciate - and learn from - one another.

From my perspective, thatıs what we need today. And that has to go well beyond the Conversation Cafe. We need to develop personal listening skills - and they are skills that anyone can develop.

Weıll be holding another session soon. If you think you might like to join us, or would like to start a Conversation Cafe and would like to know more about our experience, just drop me an email at: gstone@verizon.net

Meanwhile, here are some Web resources Iıve found useful.

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