It’s been over a week since Austin and I, and Eric Black and Charlie Quimby, went up to Princeton to Chad and Michelle Everson’s farm (they had chickens and ducks) to muck around in clay and talk with several conservative bloggers.
I’ve been buried in editing a book and doing other work and in the raw emotional experience of having someone very dear to our family be in Hazelden for treatment. I’ve found something powerfully in common between Princeton and Hazelden — it’s listening, and its opposite, pushing your position. I’ve discovered (Good Lord, how long must it take?) that communication isn’t about advancing my position, however right I’m sure it is.
Eric Black was talking with Joey Monson of Wisconsin while both were sitting on hay bales up in Princeton. They were arguing about America’s standing abroad as the war in Iraq goes on and on. Eric was reciting facts and figures. Now, nobody is better at facts and figures than Eric Black, who used to write for the Strib and now blogs and writes for Minnesota Monitor. I’ve always loved reading Eric’s explanations of complicated things — the Palestinian question, the Kurds, what makes omelets poofy. He makes convoluted things clear. But this day he was really pushing his info, saying something critical of American policy and not changing any minds. I said, to try to shift us from arguing to thinking, “So you’re one of those people who blames America first. Everything’s our fault.” He looked at me as if I’d just slipped a few rungs down the evolutionary scale, and said, “Well, if you want to reduce this to absurdities and ignore the facts and arguments…” I was playing the role of a conservative who who didn’t want to hear his liberal rap because the conservative felt no connection over which to hear Eric. “What if you said,” I proposed to Eric, “Look, I love America, I feel very fortunate to live here, and that’s why I want America to be strong and stand for good things. And when we do something I think is wrong, I believe it’s patriotic to criticize ourselves so we change and keep closer to our values,” or something like that. Lay out something he might have in common with a conservative, rather than argue a barrage of facts. Find some common goal, and then say, “Well what if we tried to get to that goal this way…”
The biggest lesson I learned from the Princeton “Conversation by Fire” bloggers’ gathering was that only when we find some connection over things that we value in common might we actually listen to one another. Charlie asked us each to say where our positions come from, what in our backgrounds and experience makes us be liberal or conservative. It was a brilliant question. And the time in Princeton spent listening to and saying why we hold the views that we hold was rewarding and interesting. The time spent trying to push those views into somebody’s stubborn head was boring and dispiriting.
Back home, my wife and I disagreed on some step in our involvement with the recovery process for our dear one at Hazelden. Lisa said something as we talked late at night in bed, and I thought her view was wrong and would even be harmful. I could hardly wait for her tongue to stop before I was in there telling her she was wrong, and why, and what would probably happen if we followed her course. I didn’t change her mind. I just pissed her off. Made her feel not heard, made her feel I wasn’t with her in this difficult situation.
I discovered, later, that it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. Really, who the hell knows? This recovery process ain’t easy. Regardless of what I thought of her view, I needed to be there “at whatever address she’s at,” my therapist (one of them) told me. If we can stand together in that doorway, hear each other, discover what we value in common (the wellbeing of the person in recovery), then we can walk out of the doorway and say, “Now, which way do we go, left? “No, I think we go right.” We may disagree, but we’ll be together on the journey. I gotta listen first, draw her out, understand why she’s saying what she’s saying, try to get what she’s feeling. Hold onto my reactions until later. Tell her where I’m coming from and what I think only after I’ve really listened to her.
Charlie Quimby and Joey Monson — liberal and conservative –are doing a brave thing after meeting at Chad’s farm in Princeton. They’ve created a blog called American Crosscut, where they intend to advance differing views on an issue while — sit down for this — actually listening to one another. I mean, here’s what these fuzzy-headed idealistic liberal/conservatives are saying they hope to do on this blog, and hope others will do: “Listen to understand instead of to refute.”
Good God. That could save the world. Bless you. And hey, Ryan, we started something. Way to go. And a ways to go.
— Bruce Benidt