Approaches to the divisiveness that surrounds us l Worship

By John Beck | Nov 21, 2018

The holidays provide challenges for many of us. Not least among these are the polarized attitudes that gather around the festive table. Some avoid family gatherings for this very reason.

Recent events have poignantly reminded us of the deeply divisive attitudes in our nation and states, geographic regions, local communities, and yes, even within our families. How do people of faith (including Lutheran Christians like me) make progress with this challenge? Jesus reached out to people on all sides of his community.  Current practitioners of listening across dividing lines might equip us to follow his example.

One approach that reduces polarization is based upon a process that helps people confirm that they have been heard. It sounds simple, though it may take maturity to implement.

David Fairman is part of the M.I.T.-Harvard Public Disputes Program and for 30 years has been helping groups that often have histories of bitter opposition “get to a place where they can talk respectfully with one another and even find ways to work meaningfully together.” (New York Times article Oct. 29, 2018).

To get this to happen one side of the conflict needs to have the courage to state that even though they are miles apart on a given issue, “I want to have a serious conversation about what you think and why you think it.” The steps involve each side (person or group) practicing a process of listening to the other side tell their story, noting especially what their needs and concerns are.

The first listeners respond by saying back to the speakers what they heard them say, seeking only accuracy and not disputing whether they are wrong or right. Then the first speakers clarify, “No, you didn’t get it,” or “Yes, you got it.” If they didn’t get it, the listeners try again until the first side says, “Yes, you heard me (or us).”

The roles are then reversed and the other side listens. What is significant in the process is that participants don’t have to “get it” perfectly. Rather, the process continues until each side has felt heard.

What has been shown by Fairman and other researchers is that it’s not critical to agree on exactly what happened or agree whose fault or responsibility something was.

Rather, the experience of being heard and understood — even if there is still significant disagreement — makes the most difference in lowering anxiety and maintaining a sense of respect for the other.

Without the experience of being heard the tendency is to keep shifting to whose fault things are and how we got here, and disputants keep coming out of their corners ready for blood.

I think Jesus would approve of this peace-building process. The Christian maxim, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7), implies a native hospitality and artful wisdom about what to do at the door when complicated neighbors come for a visit. It might even work in a marriage relationship or a public group setting.

I make no promises of how this will change your holiday conversations, but it seems like something worthwhile to experiment with.  I know I am going to try.


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