The image above is an extreme visual metaphor which shows how many of our conversations can end. (Do not try this at home!) I know something about offenses, unfortunately, we all do. We have been the cause of other peoples anger, misunderstandings, and even the dissolving of relationships. There are rifts between us and others that should not exist; some are of our making, while at times, the responsibility lies with others.
I want to take a few moments and dissect the rift, exposing how we allow it to destroy dialog, learning, relationships and maturity. In doing so, I hope to show how a specific progression of decisions we make, escalates into the creation of a rift and its eventual consequences.
5 Steps to creating a rift:
- Differing Points of View: This is a given, a rift at its inception is born from two opposing viewpoints. This can be about anything under the sun, literally. From the color of the wallpaper to a persons individual political beliefs, differing points of view are the genesis of a wider rift. This part of relationships is the most common and basic part of living life, but when not handled properly will grow and poison communication.
- Inflexibility: Differing viewpoints can lead to rigidity. Our personal viewpoint becomes a foundational building block of a rift. When whatever we think or believe unyieldingly causes a wall to be erected by ourselves or both parties, we are cut off from broadening our perspective and indeed our knowledge. Some of these may be our core beliefs, and though I agree that challenging the truth of them causes us to react strongly, it is still an opportunity to grow personally, or in relationship with someone else when we openly and genuinely discuss them.
- Conflict: Now that there are lines of demarcation declared, and they are set in concrete, let the battle begin. Here is where the emotions can start to run rampant and conversations begin to fall apart. Things are said or done out of a highly emotional and thoughtless position. This only magnifies the problem and further widens the gap. We start lobbing bombs back and forth with nothing but destruction intended. Sarcasm is used liberally to mock and deride. Conflict is normal, but not when it becomes personal attacks that are unfounded and merely used to destroy someone else’s standing. This doesn’t even have to be in a face-to-face interaction. Many a relationship has been destroyed via text, email and social media.
- Stop Listening: This one is probably the most divisive of them all, because it is the pivot on which the whole interaction disintegrates. We go from a difference of opinion, to inflexibility and brutal conflict, to completely turning off the other person. When this stage is reached, there is little chance of restoring a dialog without some super-human efforts. One or both has decided it isn’t worth their time and that they aren’t worth the effort. I don’t have to tell you that peace talks, marriage relationships, and everything in-between have been decided when the ability to be heard, and hear, has been eliminated.
- Justification: In the human mind, we find the capacity to validate our actions through our own, often flawed set of circumstances and values. We find this through persuading non-involved parties to agree with us, by using scripture to sooth our soul, or by angrily writing off the other individual as stupid, ignorant, or worthless. We build a rickety superstructure of justification that would literally topple into dust were it to be challenged by an intelligent, non-biased observer. But then again, we don’t seek those kinds of people out when we have already decided the outcome.
What are we left with when this process reaches completion? Emptiness, regret, sadness, anger, thoughts of reprisal, ambivalence? Several, or even all of them? What could have come from a dialog not infested with selfishness and one-sided strong armed tactics? Love, understanding, peace, unification, strength, knowledge, growth and maturity, to name a few.
How do we begin to listen to each other and see a good result? I mean, its perfectly OK to share opinions, it is part of the conversation – but listening is the real key.
For my part, I am a legendary talker, just ask my brother or my wife. I am the poster child for taking over and controlling a conversation. It is difficult to train yourself to listen without interrupting, or to refrain from talking over someone. Just watch Meet The Press and you’ll know what I mean. I know I need to get better at this, the listening part. As I have analyzed the ways we create rifts, it would also be good to consider the opposite side of the spectrum, and witness the evolution of a positive interaction.
Here are 5 steps to creating meaningful dialog:
- Allow Differing Points of View: We don’t agree, so what! Its OK that you have a different perspective than I. In the moment of discovering this fact we can begin to head in one of two directions, negative or positive. The positive, healthy trip begins by accepting each other with the given that differences exist, and that there is a foundation of strength in a variety of perspectives (i.e. we are saying, “I don’t know why you hold this opinion, but I want to know more.”) It is believing that when we bring together our differing views we gain a broader base through acknowledging our own blindspots.
- Practice Flexibility: Sure, you initially think that another person’s position is all wrong and that you are spot on, you’ve believed this for a long time. The point is we believe something, but haven’t considered an alternate route to get to the same destination. Truth be told, we have judged everything through the paradigm of our life, and not even considered that someone else’s experiences may enrich our specific perspective. Being flexible at this stage continues to broaden the discussion instead of widening the chasm that lies between to viewpoints. Being willing to admit we may be wrong cannot be understated in its value to enhancing the outcome of our dialog.
- Avoiding Conflict: The fact is, many of us enjoy a good fight. That is how we deal with differences, and thats how we escalate our opinions and beliefs into a war. Now, if you have two people that like to go toe to toe and can come out the other side shaking hands, you are golden. But not all people communicate on the same level. Some are processors who will discuss and then ponder, and continue the conversation later. When a person like me who processes on the fly comes up against a processor who reflects over a longer period of time, look out! Let’s soften the rhetoric, the accusations, the character assassination, the assumptions about someones dark and evil motives if need be. That doesn’t mean you give in, it just shows that you are willing to converse minus the negative attacks.
- Begin Listening: Now we are getting somewhere! After successfully hurdling some of the previous obstacles, we are settling into a meaningful dialog. An exchange of ideas that is absent of the frequent interruptions and personal insults, both being barriers to depth of connection. Now we are hearing each other, truly and honestly considering the facts and point of view of someone else. We may even find that we had believed something wrong about a person or a subject, that we didn’t know the whole story and were only partially informed. We are becoming more enlightened, impassioned and more knowledgeable than we could have been without this interaction.
- Sweet Justification: What a relief! I was worried that when I engaged in the debate initially it would devolve into a rift, but we respected one another, found common ground, and we collectively learned something in the process. That’s all the justification anyone needs or should be striving for. The results speak for themselves. We are now closer than ever, we heard what was at the heart of the matter, and didn’t just stay on the fringes. Our understanding has been expanded and now we see what we had missed in the first place. What could have been a negative has turned into the strength. Now we are unified, stronger, and more effective in the goals we are trying to reach, because we are doing it together.
It would be facetious to say that we couldn’t get stuck at any point along the way to a successful, stimulating, and insightful dialog. When a person believes something strongly, they will fight for it, sometimes to the point of eliminating the relationship. If we could all understand the potential exists that we will say something we shouldn’t, that we will offend through speaking hastily, that in the difficulty of listening we sometimes get it wrong; we might be able to avoid those pitfalls.
Grace is so important here; extending it, and receiving it. Going into conversations we know could very likely be intense, with a calm, considerate, level-headed demeanor. Accepting that we have differences and being willing to learn from each other and grow in the process. Not always insisting that our views be held as the ultimate truth or way of doing things, but instead listening to the hearts of others from a posture of love, willingness to learn, and understanding.
That is the challenge I am putting before us today, because this is the reality of what I personally need to learn. I am hoping that we can converse openly, respect each other, and grow in knowledge and grace. Lets heal the rifts and be stronger, together.