As the race for President heats up, I sometimes feel challenged by comments from friends who have political opinions averse to mine. I’m tempted to do one of three things:
1. Try to persuade the other that their view is wrong and mine is right; or
2. Say nothing and leave the impression I agree with the speaker; or
3. Say, “I don’t agree,” terminate the conversation, and walk away in disgust (or hang up or unfriend the former friend).
The first choice won’t work and may start a political food fight. The second is dishonest and not very brave. The third may damage a relationship beyond repair.
So, what can I do instead? As a mediator I can mentally step back and ask myself, how would I treat this conversation if I were an onlooker, not a participant?
A mediator listens closely to try to discover the underlying interest (or need) of each person in a dispute. Often the real interest is hidden, even from the persons themselves. When it’s my dog in the fight, I tend to focus on a particular proposed outcome, without examining my underlying need.
Back to politics. Underlying issues, for instance, may be public safety and equal treatment. Store owners want protection. Police officers want to be respected and allowed to keep order. Protesters want to be heard and respected. Black moms, like white moms, want their children to be safe. There’s a broad area for agreement here, if we’ll stop to listen to each other. We can find a win-win.
Or a disagreement may focus on medical care. One side says, “I want to choose my own doctor and insurance plan.” The other side says, “I have diabetes (or asthma or heart trouble) and my insurer won’t cover it.” Or “My boss doesn’t provide insurance and I can’t afford it.” So the issues are freedom of choice and affordability. Are both possible? Again, a wider range of potential agreement comes into view.
When my neighbor says something that pushes all my buttons, I hope I can (lovingly) ask, “Are you saying …” and reframe the feeling (probably fear or anxiety) I’m hearing. “Let me see if I understand what worries you.”
Then I may truthfully say, “That worries me, too.” Listening for the underlying concern can open the door to a fruitful discussion – or at least to a potential for more conversation and continuing friendship.
The poet Rumi said, “There is a field beyond right-doing and wrongdoing. I will meet you there.” Looking past the “solution” to the underlying fear or need can help us find a meeting place.