Hopefully nobody noticed, but I’ve been late delivering a blog these last couple of weeks. It is not just because the last few weeks were really busy, although they were, it’s because I’ve started this blog a few times and then stopped.
I think I’ve been having a hard time writing this because it is a sensitive topic, especially now, but I keep returning to it because it IS a sensitive topic which makes it a thing a lot of people are struggling with but find difficult to talk about.
I even had different titles for this blog.
In a previous iteration it was:
From The Seat of Compassion: My Search Into How To Have Good Conversations About Difficult Things.
And my favorite, but perhaps least effective:
“Go Back to Your Ivory Tower!”: Reaching Across The Divide.
The statement “Go back to your ivory tower” refers to a recent encounter I had on social media where someone charged this at me in her comments on a FB post I wrote. In some ways I guess I should appreciate the charge because it is what got me thinking about this post.
When I sat down this morning to think about why I am having such a hard time writing this blog, I tried to think about why I want to write it, and what I really want it to achieve. I realize now, when I began to write the blog in the “go back to your ivory tower” version, it began from a place of self-defense. And that is never a good place to start, which is likely why I kept stopping. Today I was able to reach deeper and understand my purpose behind writing this blog.
I think I’ve always had a deep belief in people. I spent most of my life feeling unworthy, and so I think I am very sensitive to making someone else feel that way. Even when I was younger, I seemed to see the good in people which others could not see. It meant I was sometimes a little naïve and taken advantage of, but at other times it meant certain people found a safe space with me which they had a hard time finding elsewhere. A hoped to create a place for them of acceptance. I believe we are driven to things we want for ourselves, and I see now, what I most want by struggling through the writing of this, is figuring out how we can all come back to create a place of acceptance for each of us.
It has been a contentious and divisive time in this country. The issues dividing people have been morally charged and hard to reconcile. Whether or not we are aware of it, this has created a heavy weight under which to live. Our levels of stress are high.
Not everyone will want to come together, and that’s ok. Not everyone is moveable and for some, the breach is too severe to want to cross. This in part has been another struggle for me in writing this; am I someone who can be open to anybody and everybody? I almost think you need to be the Dalai Lama for that; we each have our lines and that’s also ok, but I believe if we work to reach cross the divide of differences and seek to develop an understanding and appreciation of one another’s perspectives, we will be able to broaden our boundaries enough to create a kinder, more tolerant, and safer world.
I have to confess, perhaps another reason I found this blog hard to write is, I do not necessarily have all the answers. Here, I will simply focus on what I have come to understand from my research as well as my own personal thoughts on the subject.
THE ONE THING:
In my view, it ultimately boils down to this: we are all born wanting and needing the same things; safety, nurturance, connection, and to matter. These are our main drivers. How these get expressed and lived out, is the process by which we end up diverging and becoming different. We diverge because we each have built in biological, neurological, emotional systems that respond in predictable (and sometime unpredictable) ways to different environments and experiences. And once we commit to a path, we find it hard to change. So basically: we are born with the same needs, our environment and experiences make us different, and we find it hard to change.
To unravel all of this, to promote understanding and change, we need to be able to have non-shaming, connecting conversations about difficult things, we need to develop greater self-awareness, shame-resilience, compassion for oneself and others, and listening skills.
THE HOW OF DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS:
It seems to me, most charged arguments have at the center something of deep value each side is protecting, and often the thing they are protecting is their sense of self, and they are protecting themselves from shame. I think if we begin here, everything which follows will look very different, but to begin here, we need to increase our self-awareness.
It Always Seems Helpful to Begin With Ourselves:
Kern Beare, who wrote a book called, “Difficult conversations: The art and science of working together” said difficult conversations take place within a relationship, and the way to change anything in a relationship is to begin with the self. Beare suggests when talking about what makes conversations difficult, “The unconscious ways in particular, are where the issues arise, and the number one job for us is to become aware of our own issues that operate unconsciously, our own dynamics.”
“At the heart of every conflict is an unspoken story.”
We all carry our histories with us. Beare notes, “at the heart of every conflict is an unspoken story.” The answers to why certain conversations, or words, trigger certain emotions within us can be found in those stories, and understanding those triggers is the work we have to do, because when we get emotionally triggered it becomes very hard to work through a difficult conversation.
According to Beare, there is actual science behind this. We respond to emotional threats (threats to our deeply held beliefs) biologically in the same way we respond to a physical threat. Both threats trigger the primitive part of our brain (Brain Stem and Limbic system), the fear center, which is in charge of our fight/flight survival response. The lower brain, however, cannot tell the difference between whether the threat is an actual physical one or an emotional one. The fear center is also connected to the Amygdala, which when triggered sets into action the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) (newer part of brain) which is kind of a checks and balance system, bringing conscious awareness into the picture to decide whether the threat is real and whether it is as threatening as it seems. This more reflective process becomes critical in sending a message back to the Amygdala to calm down.
According to Beare, “What happens though is sometimes there isn’t time for the mPFC to play that role, sometimes we react so quickly and in such a heated manner that we actually lose the connection to the mPFC in any meaningful way, and when that happens we lose things like empathy, compassion, self-knowing awareness, moral reasoning…Dr. Dan Siegel calls that “flipping our lid.” When we flip our lid, we lose all those…creative capacities we need for us to function in any kind of difficult conversation.”
Self-awareness, knowing when we are triggered, and being able to get our brains (mPFC) back online, becomes a crucial first step to doing difficult conversations well. Removing the lens of our own stories helps to widen our view to communicate across differences, but when we are triggered, and this may happen indirectly or inadvertently, we become internally focused, our view becomes narrow, myopic, and we are unable to see. This is also true for others when we are trying to convince them of our own perspective; if we trigger others, and again this can happen inadvertently or indirectly, we will never get them to broaden their perspective. Change requires an openness and vulnerability. Self-awareness is the doorway through these dungeons of defensive self-protection.
We need to be self-aware that we are being emotionally triggered, understand the root of the trigger which is often attached to something deeper and historical than the conversation at hand; a value, a disappointment, an unmet need, a fear, a belief about oneself. Once this is understood it can be separated from the person we are communicating with, thus allowing us to open ourselves to them.
WHY IT IS HARD TO CHANGE:
Cognitive Bias – The Ways We Think:
Our brains and perceptions are not as reliable as we think. In fact, according to Robert Cialdini (2006) in his book “Influence”, he notes human beings are prone to common logical fallacies, errors of thinking, or ways in which our brains reliably malfunction. These so-called cognitive biases lead us to make poor decisions that may not be in our best interest and may lead us to believe things that are not necessarily true.
One, for example is, Social Proof; When we are around other people, their choices, decisions, behaviors, what we see them do, has an enormous impact on both what we think and how we act. This has an adaptive function in that when we find ourselves in a strange environment, it would be useful to follow the behavior of people around us to know how to survive. The maladaptive part of this is sometimes we hold on to this bias of following what those around us do, even when we receive (but ignore) information telling us that what others may be doing does not align with our needs or values. There have been instances of course, demonstrating large groups of people can be misinformed and make poor decisions; for instance, there was a time most people smoked believing it was not addictive. There was a time people thought it was ok to own slaves. According to Beare, "Since a major part of our informational access to what others do is currently through social media, we see large groups of people doing things that may or may not be true, accurate, beneficial, or even applicable to our context or to what we care about.. [Social Proof in this way becomes] a very poor heuristic to figure out what’s true, valuable or important."
Another interesting bias is commitment and consistency. Human beings are biased toward being “consistent” once they make a commitment, no matter how small the commitment; e.g. if a person has at some point agreed with, or identified themselves with a belief, a group, a choice, they will more likely behave in a way that is consistent with this group, prior commitment, or belief, even after they receive information that should change their mind. For example, assume Group A preferred Coke over Pepsi, and I also agreed Coke was better, so I joined group A. Later if Group A also suggested oranges were better than apples, whether or not I had any prior preference, I would be more likely than not to also agree that oranges were better, just because Group A, the group I made a prior commitment to, said so. If new research emerged regarding the nutritional value and worldwide preferences of apples versus oranges, and found more people actually preferred apples and found apples were in fact better for you, I would still be more likely to believe oranges were better in order to stay consistent with my group.
Being aware that ALL our minds work this way can help us better understand why it is hard sometimes for us, and for others, to see differently. It can provide us with a little more of the understanding and tolerance needed to help us navigate difficult conversations.
Emotional Obstacles – The Ways We Feel:
The most insidious emotion that prevents us from change is shame.
Brené Brown defines shame as “the fear of disconnection.” :
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”
It is the fear that we’ve done something or failed to do something, haven’t lived up to an ideal, or haven’t accomplished a goal that makes us worthy of connection. Further, it is felt as real physical pain: studies have shown the intense experiences of social rejection, hurts in the same way a spilling a cup of hot coffee on your hand. The same part of the brain lights up in both scenarios.
To understand shame, we need to distinguish it from guilt. Very simply, shame is “I am bad”, guilt is “I did something bad.” And here is the crux of it: If I AM BAD, how can I change? If I am a good person but DID SOMETHING BAD, then that is workable and changeable. According to Brown,
“We think that shaming is this great moral compass, that we can shame people into being better. But that’s not true: Shame corrodes the part of us that believes that we can be different.”
Of note here is, if indeed our sense of shame is based on something real, based on a way we have acted that is against our own values, we need to be able to sit with that shame and work through it. Sometimes it is an appropriate reaction to feel shame. However, the only way to work through shame is with self-compassion and acceptance.
Change requires a platform of self-worth. According to Harriet Lerner (one of our most respected voices in the psychology of women, and the “how-tos” of navigating the swamps and quicksands of difficult relationships):
“in order to apologize, a person needs a big platform of self-worth to stand on. And when they stand on that higher platform of self-worth, they can look out at their bad behavior and their mistakes, and they see those mistakes as part of a much bigger part of their being human, of their being an ever-changing, complex self. People who do really bad things and people who do the greatest harm to us are least able to apologize, because they stand on a small, rickety platform of self-worth. And they’re not able to then be able to see the bad things they’ve done as just a part of the whole complexity of being human. They’re very vulnerable to collapsing into shame, and they just can’t do it.”
While Lerner was referring to the act of apologizing, the same principals apply to shame; we need to develop our own capacity to see our mistakes and instead of spiraling into shame, know that we are worthy enough to change.
For all the same reasons, we also need to be self-aware of shaming the other person. Brené Brown suggests, “shame is the opposite of empathy.” Sometimes we may be unaware we are triggering shame in the other, but sometimes we are aware. Regardless, we cannot get someone to listen or change by shaming them. All that will do is trigger their Limbic System and force them to armor up emotionally in defense of themselves. Empathy & compassion is the only way through armor and shame.
RISING BEYOND LABELS TOWARD A UNIVERSAL UNDERSTANDING THAT WE ARE ALL HUMAN: BUILDING EMPATHY & COMPASSION.
I think a helpful guideline in these conversations is to stay away from assumptions and accusations.
We make A LOT of assumptions about people. It is so routine and unconscious to the point where we don’t even realize the difference between an assumption and fact sometimes, we register it as one and the same; i.e. we respond emotionally to an assumption as if it were in fact true.
There is so much information for us to take in about the world, and it would take so much cognitive energy to process all the information coming at us as “new” in every instant. To deal with this, our brain creates shortcuts to understanding and taking in information in the form of categorizations. A “pen” is an instrument of “writing” and it has various predictable features such as being “long and thin.” You get the idea. The problem is sometimes we do this for people as well, “she lives in an ivory tower, so she has no idea of how normal people live, and no understanding about suffering.”
This is where we return to the one idea I talked about in the beginning; we are all born wanting and needing the same things; safety, nurturance, connection, and to matter. We all want to be loved, to be heard, to be respected, and to have impact. It is likely we have all experienced a failure in one, or some, of these needs being met at some point in our lives, because well, life is hard. For us all. We all carry some pain, but that pain may not be visible to others.
When we come down to the essence of what it means to be human, when remove the armor and layers we have used to differentiate and protect ourselves throughout our lifetimes, we start to see the vulnerability and fear of disconnection that is part of all of us. My hope, my belief, is when we begin here, when we remove the protective cages around our own hearts, we will be able to reach each other across the divide. It takes vulnerability, courage, an appreciation of the other, and an act of love.
When we come from a place of awareness about our own triggers, biases, are centered in a the belief in our own worthiness, as well as the humanity and worthiness of others, we can begin a real conversation around differences. I am going to refer to some elements of "Wholehearted Non-Defensive Listening" offered by Harriet Lerner (2020). I think a simple list of the elements will do here, but if you want to go deeper, I would recommend her interview with Brene Brown on the podcast Unlocking Us, or Lerner's Book, "Why Won't You Apologize?"
Recognize your own defensiveness
Listen only to understand
Ask questions about what you don't understand.
Define your differences; the places where you see things differently.
I will leave you with this quote from Brené Brown:
“Love is an act of courage. If we can remain open and vulnerable even to love across our differences, even when we don’t get it back, even when we are faced with anger or accusation or hate, then I think we have a chance of transforming the world. It doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to be treated badly or we don’t stand up for what we believe, or that there aren’t people who it may be best to step away from, it means we continue to do so with love and compassion in our hearts.”
Brown, B.(Host). (2020, May 6). Harriet Lerner and Brené I’m Sorry: How to Apologize & Why it Matters Part 2. [Audio Podcast Episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/harriet-lerner-and-brene-im-sorry-how-to-apologize-why-it-matters/
Cialdini, Robert (2006 ). Influence: The Psychology of Influence, Rev. Ed. William Marrow & Co, NY.
Karpas, Patricia. (Host) (2020, Nov 10). Kern Beare: How to Have a Difficult Conversation - #4 in the SOS Election Series. [Audio podcast episode]. In Untangle. Meditation Studio by Muse.
Lerner, Harriet (2017). Why Won't You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York.