Succeeding at Civility

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Here in northwest Iowa we have been conducting an experiment for the past few months.  A colleague and I started a dialogue group to create a space for gracious conversation about issues that affect everyone, so we mostly talk about politics.

Almost everybody I know felt beat up after the presidential election of 2016.  It didn’t matter whether your candidate of choice won or not.  If you got into conversations about the election, there was a good chance you got into a heated argument.

It is tough out in the public square these days.  During the presidential campaign, protesters who shouted at political rallies were escorted out the door.  But it wasn’t just in public places.  Thanksgiving dinners were ruined even after the election, with angry words spoken and turkey suddenly tasting like cardboard as anxiety rose to a fever pitch.

In the months since, the situation has not gotten better.  We could almost predict the shocking news of a recent shooting motivated by political differences.

We can do better than this.

Last year my friend Wendy and I talked about how to get people together to share their ideas, tell their stories, and listen instead of arguing.  We decided it was worth some trial and error at first.

So, we did it.  We had two pilot meetings in December.  The fact that people came in the middle of the busy Christmas season indicated how much they needed this.  They were excited to read the rules of dialogue and start practicing gracious conversation together.

We launched officially in February.  Word got around.  The local editor did a beautiful article the weekend before our launch.  New faces appeared at virtually every gathering.  People of all political stances, a wide range of ages, and vastly different backgrounds shared their views around the table.

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We had to work at listening to each other.  I had to remind people not to form arguments and bring background material.  We were there to hear each other’s stories, not debate or reach consensus or even common ground.

On the day I screwed up my courage to begin this venture, the words “Knock, knock” came to mind out of the blue.  What?  Is this a joke?  Where is this coming from?  I won’t get all mystical here, but it felt like divine inspiration.  My first reaction to the words “knock, knock” was to think, “who’s there?”

That’s it.  Who is there?  As Elizabeth Alexander asks in her poem, “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” “are we not of interest to each other?”

This is what we have been ignoring in our political debates.  Instead of getting more and more shrill in our efforts to prove we are right, we need to pause and consider the person we are talking to.  Instead of trying to convince you why you are wrong I need to ask, “Why does this matter to you?  What is at stake here for you?”  And then just listen.  Ask questions out of curiosity.

What have we got to lose if we do this?  Nothing.  We learn different perspectives.  We realize why our problems are not easily solved.  We understand that we have to live together and find a middle way because we care about each other. 

That’s what has been happening.  We have been making new friends.  We have actually been laughing together with people we can’t agree with about health care or guns or immigration policies or abortion.  We are hearing each other’s stories, and telling our own.

At our first gathering, I said, “Folks, we have to start somewhere.  I don’t know if this will succeed or not, but we have to try.”  Every head nodded emphatically.

It feels so good to be listened to.  It is exciting to realize that I can be a good listener too.  Most of all, it is a relief to find that we can do this.  We really can do this.

Because who’s there really matters.

Knock Knock is on summer hiatus.  You can see more at our Facebook page, “Knock Knock One,” and follow us for future posts.  Principles of dialogue for our group are taken from Kay Lindahl’s book: Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening.