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Inquiring minds

Last week I gave a short presentation and then engaged in conversation with about 10 young men at the SigEp fraternity at Northwestern University. Their thoughtful and intelligent questions made the experience richly rewarding for me, because I learned from their inquiries and comments even as I shared my own knowledge.

Among other things, several of them suggested that I look up and watch Jordan Peterson being interviewed by Cathy Newman on BBC television. That interview has indeed gone viral with over 4 million views, in large part because Newman consistently—and antagonistically—misrepresented Peterson’s views.

The best analysis I have seen so far is by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic.  I recommend reading his essay. I have also tuned in to commentary by many others, available in print and on YouTube, and found several astute assessments.

As Conor Friedersdorf says so well, and I paraphrase: The effects of the interviewer’s approach are harmful because anyone who watches and accepts the interviewer’s characterizations will believe that Peterson holds views that are simply not true. Friedersdorf adds that we need to get better at accurately characterizing the views of folks with differing opinions. Amen to that!

Although Cathy Newman spoke of wanting to understand Peterson better, she gave no evidence of it. It appeared that she entered the TV studio with fixed ideas, and that her intent was not to enlighten her audience about Peterson’s views, but rather, to inform them of her own.

To truly understand the views of others, intelligently, we must explore and understand not only the ideas themselves, but also the framing and context in which those views sit. That means being willing to unlock ourselves from our own framing. We may still disagree, but a more holistic understanding of the other expands our own worldview, and it may even make space for common ground.

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A mind-bending concept

Emotions play a large role in any discussion, including political discussions. We react with excitement when someone shares our view, and outrage when a person expresses a view we find offensive. We may also feel disdain, amusement, joy, anxiety and many other emotions when in conversation with others, whether we show it or not. We feel entirely justified in our emotional reactions because we are defending our worldview, which is deeply rooted in our beliefs about right and wrong.

Several social scientists (most notably, Jonathan Haidt) have shown that emotions play an important role in our sense of morality, and that emotions and morality influence our rational arguments far more than we realize.

Now, some fascinating new research reveals that our brains create our emotions in a predictive process based on past experiences. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a social scientist and professor of psychology, recently published her research findings in a book titled How Emotions are Made. She also expounds on the topic in a TED Talk. (I have watched the Talk but not yet read the book.)

“Emotions that seem to happen to you are actually made by you.”
 “Your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world.”

These ideas are similar to the philosophical underpinnings of meditation, yoga, and some East-Asian teachings, which suggest that our thoughts and emotions are separate from us; we can observe them, view them through another lens, and perhaps come to a different conclusion.

Barrett seems to take this a step further. Where Buddhism says that we can choose how to interpret a situation and how to respond, Barrett is saying that we can also influence what emotion we create in the first place. This is a mind-bending concept, and the implications are profound. We have far more agency than we realize, and we can make intense discussions more fruitful with a new approach and a bit of practice.

I look forward to reading the book and learning more. In the meantime, I am practicing greater awareness of what I feel and how I interpret. Then again, there are some situations that are fine just as they are. Today I was moved to tears as I listened on the radio to the wistful and wishful lyrics of the Beatles’ song, Imagine. I have no idea why my brain created these emotions; it intrigues me, but I’m willing to just let it be a mystery.

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What I learned at TED Women 2017

Hosts Pat Mitchell & Kelly Stoetzel speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Hosts Pat Mitchell & Kelly Stoetzel speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Joan Blades (Living Room Conversations) & John Gable (All Sides) speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Joan Blades (Living Room Conversations) & John Gable (All Sides) speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

I recently returned from the TEDWomen conference in New Orleans. TEDWomen is a three-day conference about the power of women and girls to be creators and change-makers. The stories on stage were inspiring, and the connections we made in the gathering spaces were also enriching. We were there to learn from each other as much as from those who took the stage, so we did not hesitate to strike up conversations with people we did not know. The entire three-day conference felt like a warm embrace. 

Since returning I have wondered how we can foster more of that same trust and openness in our daily lives. As I reflect on what works and what doesn’t, I realize that it doesn’t take much. We just need to ask questions that cause the other to reflect before answering.

A friend once asked me in an e-mail: “What is lighting up your life these days?” This question yields a very different response than if she had asked: “So, how are you?” With the former question, I reflect on what is meaningful to me and share it. With the latter question, I tend to offer a litany of complaints. (“This happened, and then that happened…”)

We spend so much time actively thinking about how we present ourselves to the world; and with friends and family we tend to unload. Imagine if we spent just as much time inquiring about what is vital and meaningful to another person. It doesn’t have to be a touchy-feely question. It simply needs to be an open-ended inquiry that makes space for the vitality of the other to bubble forth.

Need suggestions on open-ended questions? Consider The 36 Questions that Lead to Love and in your mind replace the word “love” with “connection.” The other person does not need to be a potential romantic partner, nor do you have to ask all 36 questions. The idea is simply to ask questions that open the door for the essence of the other to enter the space. This is where connection and possibility take place.

Teresa Njoroge (Clean Start) speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Teresa Njoroge (Clean Start) speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Stephanie Speirs (Solstice) speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Stephanie Speirs (Solstice) speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

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Anger and Kindness

Dr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, recently spoke about the value of anger to prompt us to action. He emphasized that the value is derived from being able to channel the anger without aggression, and that daily self-reflection on what we can do improve ourselves is what gives us the power to improve the world. Wise words indeed!

In our era of outrage, far too many people seem to be blinded by anger, and even to cultivate it. Their actions appear intended to draw attention to themselves rather than to effect meaningful, positive change. I am dismayed to see the pride with which so many people proudly proclaim that they “called someone out.” To what end, I ask? Is the targeted person likely to change his/her behavior in response to being publicly shamed? Unlikely, I believe.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” has been interpreted in many ways, often with concrete actions to build, create, or transform something. I think it also means finding ways to be kind, compassionate, and patient in our everyday lives, even with those who drive us crazy – such as colleagues, family members or service providers. It means seeing the dignity of the other and speaking to it, from one’s own place of dignity.

All too often, we explain away our outbursts or aggression as a response to what someone else did or said. But this means that we live our lives in reaction to others, rather than from our own core. A crucial question to ask ourselves is not “What do I want to do in the world?” but “How do I want to be in the world, regardless of what anyone else does?” I know from my own personal experience that developing this type of grounding can be challenging at times, but I also know that it is well worth the effort because of the way it transforms relationships.

Many of us want to make the world a better place, and schools try to instill this aspiration in students. It is heartening to see young people apply themselves to innovative thinking to help those in need, or who address injustice with a problem-solving mindset. We need this. But it is equally important to cultivate kindness. I believe a kind person can generate more valuable change in our society than an outraged person, even when addressing injustices. A kind person is not a push-over, but someone who has a grounded awareness of self and others.

You can read the short article about Dr. Arun Gandhi’s talk here.

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