One Thing We Can All Agree On

“I don’t recognize the country that I love.”

I have heard this statement many times, from people on the left and the right, and I certainly feel it myself. Granted, we all have different reasons for this sentiment, but it does lead one to ask: What are we going to do about it?

I see all kinds of responses. There is increased tribalism, where we fret and vent within our own circles. There is withdrawal from the news because it becomes too draining to follow. And there is resistance and protest, which did not start in the Trump presidency, but long before.

In the short term, all of these responses seem to make sense because they are soothing and/or energizing in some way. They give us a sense that we have control over our lives. But in the long term, they significantly weaken the bonds that make a society a cohesive, functioning unit because they separate us.

Here’s a radical thought:

How about engaging with each other with the empathy that we tend to reserve only for those who think as we do?

Take a risk. Reach out to someone who sees the world differently than you do and have a cup of coffee together. Ask what s/he is feeling and thinking, and why. Peel back the layers to find out what lies underneath; don’t assume you know. Inquire with open-ended questions. Let go of your desire to persuade, to opine, to be heard. In this moment, just inquire, listen, and keep inquiring with curiosity until you understand the other.

This is where our collective power lies. Engaging with difference® is how we can shape the world we live in to include each other. It is how we ensure that we continue to live in a country of laws and compassion. We cannot survive with just laws or just compassion; we need both. And we need each other.



Why I Do What I Do

Some think that People Beyond Politics™ (PBP) is about politics. It’s not. It is about people and how we understand each other when we have different perspectives. Only when we know how to explore each other’s frame of reference and context can we discuss politics (or any topic) in a meaningful way.

Last week I posted a video on our Facebook page from a TEDx Talk given by Paula Stone Williams, a transgendered woman who shares her insights about living both as a man and a woman in our society. At first glance, her talk might appear to be unrelated to People Beyond Politics™ – but it is spot-on. The takeaways, as I see them, are not just the points she makes about the topic, but also the way her grace and humor draw us in and invite us to listen. It is a powerful example of engaging one’s audience effectively, even on a controversial subject.

I have spent a lifetime learning about the many dimensions of communicating across differences, and I have seen the positive impact of incorporating this learning – both on myself and on others. These leadership and communication skills have transformed my life: they have reduced friction and frustration, and created a multitude of new opportunities for connections, growth, and change. I am convinced that these skills are crucial to making teams and policies more coherent and effective. In short, they are an essential ingredient for making the world a better place. This is why I do what I do.

I hope you will consider subscribing to our newsletter and participating in this growing community of people who come from all walks of life. We are from across the political spectrum, but we share a desire to build bridges, expand understanding, and make a difference, each in our own way.



It Starts with Kindness

I suspect that many will see the title here and think: “I’m a kind person; I don’t need to read more.” Wait; don’t go! Please read on. I am not talking about being kind when everything is humming along smoothly. I’m talking about the pivotal importance of being kind even when we feel angry or offended, and how to do it.

Kindness lubricates the interlocking pieces of a strong democracy or cohesive working group. Many other elements are crucial, too, but without kindness, persistent friction corrodes the mechanisms and reduces the effectiveness of the overall system. Kindness is an essential element for creating an environment in which everyone can thrive.

Equally important, we cannot understand those with whom we disagree without kindness, because understanding requires us to be open-minded and open-hearted. We hear (and are heard) when there is a generosity of spirit, even as we challenge certain ideas.

Many will be quick to say: "But I cannot be kind to someone who says something reprehensible! That would condone such behavior." Of course, there are instances when we may choose not to engage because we find a statement or action to be so egregious that it does not deserve recognition. But before we condemn, are we sure we have understood that person correctly? Does the other person agree that we have understood correctly?

There is an art to resisting, disagreeing, or standing firm while being kind, and it takes practice to develop. This is not about turning the other cheek; it is about staying in alignment with our own moral compass and leading from within, rather than living our lives in reaction to others.

Certainly, it is challenging to be our best selves in every circumstance, but we get better the more we do it. Personal Leadership (PL) is a set of defined practices that helps develop these skills. Most importantly, when it is in play it shifts the dynamic of the interaction and changes what we put out into the world.

The more we practice kindness in our everyday lives, the more easily it will come forth in times of stress or disagreement. When we think about kindness received, it puts us in a positive frame of mind. When we share affirmative stories, we inspire each other. This is not Pollyanna speaking; it actually works.

Right now we spend a lot of time sharing outrage, dismay, and grievances. We form tribal alliances based on what we agree is wrong—in Washington, in classrooms, in our communities. Let's rebalance a bit, and also share stories of unexpected kindness.

We can shift the energy of our environments, one interaction at a time, and I invite you to help make that happen.

Would you be willing to briefly share your story of receiving an unexpected kindness in the Comments section below? It will inspire others, and it deserves to be shared. And it would make my day. Thank you!  :-)

Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.



A Different Way of Listening

When we listen, we tend to listen for something—something to respond to. We listen for an idea we like or dislike, or an experience we can relate to. We listen to provide support and affirmation. We listen for the hook that either engages us and draws us in, or repels us and pushes us back. We listen ready to react.

This kind of listening makes sense in a formal debate, in which two sides are arguing opposing points and listening for weaknesses and opportunities in the statements of the other side. But such an approach constrains real dialogue, where the intent is to create connection and expand understanding.

We naturally process what we hear through our own framing and experiences. We hear what is important to us and ignore that which does not resonate. It is like being given a picture and cropping out what is irrelevant—to us. But it might be essential to the speaker.

A perfect example is when Mary Kissel of the Wall Street Journal interviewed Robert Murray of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a conservative think-tank based in Alberta, shortly after Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada in October 2015. She kept framing her questions in terms of taxes even though he repeatedly replied that this election was more about values. They were like ships passing in the night—purportedly in the same conversation, but actually not. Her questions were entirely through her frame of reference, which yielded little of value. If she had engaged in more open inquiry (“What do you mean?”) it would have offered greater insights.

Other examples are from our everyday lives, when talking with friends or colleagues. We quickly exclaim: “I know just what you mean!” when in reality we may not fully understand. Or we try to offer comfort for emotional distress by putting it in a different context (“It’s not really that bad; look at it this way…”). Instead, we can simply say: “You are sad about “x” situation; what does that mean for you?”

Jesper Juul, a Danish child-development specialist, makes this same point in reference to children’s drawings. When we say to a child: “What a beautiful/cool picture you have drawn!” we are unconsciously judging both the picture and the child’s capabilities. Instead, Juul suggests that we acknowledge the picture and ask neutral questions: “I see you have drawn a picture. Tell me about it; what is it about?” Not only is this what every child needs to hear; it is what every one of us needs to hear. We want someone to simply hold the space so we can express ourselves from the context we inhabit.

Transformative listening means having an awareness of the frame of reference we bring to the table, and the humility to set it aside temporarily. It means cultivating openness and inquiry, sitting with ambiguity, and letting clarity come slowly. While this approach may not be relevant to every situation, it is applicable to many. It transforms the meaning and trajectory of an interaction and gives rise to new understanding.

I often find it challenging to listen this way because I love to jump in with my thoughts and perspective, but it gets easier with practice. I keep at it because it gives me more interesting conversations. Try it and let me know what you think.

Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.



The Quest for Purity

Many journalists have written about outrage being the emotion du jour – or as Hugh Hewitt puts it, our current addiction. A few months ago, he wrote:

“…like the human pulse, it is nowadays a sign of life. Not to be outraged is to be almost disqualified in the eyes of many from being a participant in politics, even though the perpetually outraged fall across the political spectrum. Not only can they not imagine anyone not being outraged, they also can’t imagine any kind of outrage save their own.”

There are certainly plenty of reasons to be outraged. But being in a constant state of elevated anger, from one issue to the next, is ultimately self-defeating. It drives us into binary thinking not only about issues, but about people. (You are with us or against us.) And once in that space, we lose our capacity to distinguish nuance, texture, and difference; we shrink the gray zone, which is where we need to be operating; and most importantly, we squander the opportunity to gather new insights, expand our understanding, and build a viable, inclusive path forward.

Outrage can be valuable, when used judiciously. But when it is always turned on, it seems to bring forth a disquieting quest for purity. There is a growing intolerance of anyone whose thoughts, actions, and statements do not meet our criteria, as evaluated through our own lens. We don’t make room for the possibility that we may have misinterpreted someone, or not fully understood the multi-layered and complex context from which that person was speaking.

On a recent radio program, the left-leaning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described an experience of being misinterpreted by those within her own political tribe, and being taken down publicly. She said: “The Left eat their own…” and then commented further on the intolerance of perceived variances in thinking.

Two weeks later, on a different radio program titled “Words You Can’t Say,” I heard the same statement made on the Right, by Dodie Horton, a Republican state senator. She said: “I was amazed to find that Republicans eat their own.”

In both cases, it had to do with language and a misinterpretation of a particular choice of words. In both cases, these people were hounded and intimidated for an interpretation that was imposed on them.

There is a disturbing blindness to this quest for purity. When we insist on processing what we hear through our own frame of reference, without considering and exploring the frame of the other, we miss complexity, nuance, and possibilities for creative solutions. In our well-meaning desire to elevate and improve our society, we inadvertently kill off that which will help it grow.

So, the next time someone says something that offends you, or that you find discordant in some way, ask an open-ended question before making a statement. It is harder to do than you think, because we are so used to responding with a statement (and often, a judgment).

Until and unless we develop the skill to explore someone else’s context in all its layers of complexity, we will miss one opportunity after another to broaden our understanding of the world we live in, and to expand our capacity to effect positive change for all.

Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.



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.

Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.



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.

Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.


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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

Copyright © 2017 Sharon V. Kristjanson.
All rights reserved.

 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.

Copyright © 2017 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.