As some of you may have noticed, I fell knee-deep into the internet aftermath of the election shit storm. Before November, I blogged a total of 12 times. I wrote eight posts in the month of November alone. Lots of comments, lots of feelings, lots of words.
I’m not usually in the habit of feeding the trolls, but lately I just have so much food on my hands. Please note, I am not calling any one particular group of people trolls. Refer back to my Instagram experience for a good idea of what I mean. Trolls come from all different sides in all shapes and sizes and colors (especially hair) and some even have jewels for belly buttons! And they often say the craziest things, which might cause you to stop and think…wait…are they actually being serious right now?
Noticing my increased presence on Facebook, one of my friends poked a little fun at me for feeding the trolls, but also agreed that in real life, this is exactly what needs to happen: intertribal dialogue. The phrase spread warmly through my body like that first sip of Laphroaig. He had lived and worked in Kenyan villages and said this whole election reminded him a lot of Africa.
“I came away thinking they are not culturally ready for democracy, because people just voted for their tribe, no matter what the actual candidate said, did, or stood for. My mistake was thinking we were any better. When Trump said he could shoot someone on fifth avenue and not lose support, that’s when I knew our tribal moment had arrived.”
Before you get immediately offended by that statement, just take a moment to think about that statement, not about who said what or why.
Intertribal dialogue is necessary for progress, for growth, for discovering common ground. We need to talk to each other, try to understand each other’s perspective. We need to remove ourselves from our echo chambers, cross that imaginary, but very real line at the school sock hop and ask a boy to dance, even if we’ve been told he has cooties. We need to put real faces to words and ideas, make the connection between real people and real experiences, keep reminding ourselves that the fact we don’t see eye to eye doesn’t make us less human. Some might argue it makes us more so.
That’s sort of what I attempted to do via internet. When I saw people make comments I did not understand, I asked clarifying questions to seek understanding. Sure, I know how I interpreted their words, but maybe that’s not exactly what they meant. When I saw people share fake news, agreeing feverishly with it, I had this overwhelming desire to discuss the content, parse out what their exact takeaway was. Depending on your viewpoint, it is very possible to read the same thing, and come away with two totally different truths. Many of my own blog posts were addressed to “you,” which wasn’t necessarily code for a particular person, but more like how “Uncle Sam Wants YOU” whoever you are. If you read my words and felt they were directed at you, we’re probably in different tribes. If you read my words and found yourself saying, “Yes, yes, yes, all of the yes,” we’re very likely in the same tribe.
My attempts at internet intertribal dialogue didn’t always work out so well for me. Many people from outside my tribe just didn’t seem to be interested in having a conversation. My old roommate in college, and now apparently ex-friend, posted one of those maps of the country showing the red and the blue, stating something about how the people have spoken, and clearly more people feel red. I asked her if she considered that space on a map does not necessarily represent the number of people who live in those spaces, but just space on a map. Normally I try to make sure I include the exact details of my interactions and try not to paraphrase, but I can’t for this example, because she not only deleted her post of the map, but de-friended AND blocked me. Dialogue denied.
And then of course, there’s the comments on my own blog. I want nothing more to talk about my posts with people who disagree or think different. That’s how I learn. That’s how I see my viewpoint isn’t the only viewpoint. That’s the foundation of bridge building. But comments like this, don’t help.
And then there is the endless string of unknown identities, who anonymously state their point, but don’t care to have a two-way conversation. I have an issue with Anonymous people on the internet, hiding behind a computer screen, holding no one accountable for words expressed. Own your words, always.
So yeah, maybe the internet isn’t the easiest or best place to start. Perhaps talking with people you know, people you regularly converse with, or just any real live person who embodies different thoughts and feelings might be a better first step.
And what an excellent opportunity if you have friends and family who think different from you! I mean, really, who better than your inner circle, the folks who understand you, love and respect you? The people you choose to surround yourself with and under ordinary circumstances, with whom you share so many commonalities? Because if you can’t talk with your family and closest friends about the stuff that really matters, we’re in trouble. Those bridges are going to be a lot more difficult to build than I thought.
But there is one tiny problem with my logic: unfortunately, way too often, family forgets to lend you the same respect they might lend a stranger in conversation of importance. I mean, they know you, don’t they? They already have their view of who you are, in fact, they made up their mind a long time ago. You’ll always be the party girl or the goody-two-shoes or the jock or the weaselly middle child. Often it’s difficult to keep an open mind while having a real conversation with immediate family, because you’ve already reached all the conclusions before any words are even exchanged.
And that sucks. Because people change. They grow. I mean, I sure as hell hope I am not the same person I was when I was 18. And you want to know the craziest thing? You do most of your growing and changing after you leave home. After you leave your family. You often discover who you are, become who you are, realize your full potential when you’re out on your own. Only by then, it’s too late. You’ve already been given an identity, even if you grew out of that yourself years ago.
I was fortunate enough to have two verbal face-to-face intertribal dialogues over Thanksgiving. One went fairly well, one sort of crashed and burned. One was with a friend’s family, one was with immediate family. Take your guess as to which was which.
Aside from alcohol being a terrible ingredient to any intelligent conversation of worth, I noticed one major difference between sensitive discussions with immediate family and discussions with my friend’s family: one more closely followed the LARA principles and one did not: Listen, Affirm, Respond, Add. It’s a method of constructive conflict resolution, one that I’ve found to be pretty effective when put into practice. The following descriptions of LARA are taken from the University of Michigan’s Office of Student Conflict Resolution.
Listen with an intent to understand. Listen for underlying principles, cultural values, emotions, and issues behind what is being said. Listen for commonalities. Observe body language and tone of voice which may provide additional meaning. Listen for inherent needs and interests, not just what is said.
With my family, this is sort of tossed out the window immediately. I have a public blog where I regularly share my thoughts and feelings. They had been reading my words from afar for a while. They already had their impressions, their interpretation, their understanding. They had their responses queued up. They did not need to need to hear what I had to say at the moment; it was their turn to talk, to respond to everything. I get it, but at the same time, that’s pretty unfair. I can control what I write, but I can’t control how people interpret my words, or how my words make them feel. And without a proper discussion, it’s hard to know the level of understanding that occurred.
Too often, close families forget to be active listeners. We all just wait for the person to be done talking so we can talk. We resort to name-calling more quickly and tend to make things personal more often. We know where to hit each other where it hurts, aren’t afraid to do so and things can get ugly unnecessarily fast. Sometimes you treat the ones you love the most, the worst.
Affirm the principles or issues in what was said, or simply the feelings or emotions that were expressed (“you care strong about this”). Affirming is not agreeing, it’s acknowledging or recognizing what is shared. This can be done by simply repeating or rephrasing what was said.
This step is skipped A LOT, one I learned the true value of over a decade of working with doctors and nurses, trying to bridge the gap between the medical and information technology fields. It’s not enough to listen. You have to comprehend what they are saying.
Respond to the issues that were raised and the underlying needs behind them. Ask questions about what was said.
This is an important step, and it only really works if you get here by completing step one and two. Otherwise you’re just an asshole. It also seems to often be the most difficult for people standing on the other side of the bridge to hear. Because when someone makes it to step three, that means the other person has to be in step one. Breathe. You can’t respond without affirming and you can’t affirm unless you listen. You’ll get to step three soon enough.
Add information to the conversation. After seeking to understand, seek to be understood.
Now that you both understand each other, you can talk about where to go from there. About what this means. Maybe you’ll reach a resolution, maybe you won’t. But at least you gave it the ol’ college try.
Some people hate conflict. They want to sweep it under the rug, pretend it’s not happening, pretend it doesn’t exist. But it is happening, it does exist. And if you keep sweeping it under the rug, someone is going to notice that lumpy spot in the corner eventually, and your furniture won’t fit in the living room quite the way it did before.
Family isn’t just about having built-in friends with whom to share all the goodness of life. It’s for support and love and having someone in your corner when the world is beating you up, or bringing you down. If you can’t talk with your family, if you’re uninterested in the people who they truly are, and not just who you think they are or want them to be, if you don’t care about the things that matter most to them, if you don’t try to understand how you’re part of the same family, yet belong to very different tribes, your relationship will never progress. Worse, it might potentially reverse.
The easiest and most beautiful bridges to build are those you don’t have to build alone. And if you don’t try to build that understanding, if you have no interest in even visiting them on their end of the bridge during the holidays, well, that doesn’t really sound much like a family to me at all. That sounds more like a bunch of strangers from different tribes, uninterested in dialogue.