How to be now: Listening

Yesterday, I wrote a long post about “how to be now,” about how my fear and anger were toggling back and forth and making me kind of useless in the face of Everything that is Happening.  I mentioned different kinds of things I have learned in my realm of communication theory/practice that I’m pondering as different ways to think about, frame and respond to the world we find ourselves in now.

One of the most important aspects of how we got to this place we’re in right now is because of a polarized discourse in the US that’s been deepening since the 1980s, between two identities that basically correspond to “conservative” and “liberal.”


To boil a 300 page dissertation down to a few paragraphs, when you have the kind of intractable positions we are seeing right now, it’s not about facts or anything rational, but about identity.  The two political parties in the US are not possible menus of policies people choose at election time, but maps to “the kind of person I am.”  In places like Canada or the UK, where we have more than two parties, we affiliate with a rough part of the political spectrum, but we are more likely to flit between parties as individual candidates please us or piss us off, or to choose a marginal party as a protest.

In the US, there’s almost no such movement.  Political affiliation is for most people an expression of a deep-rooted cultural and personal identity.  You can’t counter identity with what most people call “logic” (though from a theoretical point of view, there is an inherent coherence and internal logic to it, as George Lakoff describes very well).  In terms of the theory I use, identity in this situation is almost always the “highest context,” which means that every fact that comes up is interpreted not in a sort of “objective reality” but against the logic of “does this affirm my sense of affiliation with this identity?”

A great example of this was the number of people who identify as conservative who said they saw more people in a picture of the crowd from Trump’s inauguration than from Obama’s, even in the face of clear evidence that there was a ton of empty space in the Trump pic.  (Liberals do this too — it’s not unique to conservatives). The researchers in this studied explained it as “some Trump supporters in our sample decided to use this question to express their support for Trump rather than to answer the survey question factually.”  In communication theory terms, we would say that they make meaning of what they see against their “interpretive repertoire” that holds that defending their position — and sense of self —  is a more important context  than “objective assessment.”

We try to persuade each other of our points of view by crafting solid arguments, trying to make our points incontrovertible.  Like half the people I know, I’m continually sharing thoughtful pieces of writing, making connections, trying to unpack the implications of what the Trump administration might be *really* doing by continually moving the line, pushing hard and then pulling back just enough that we go, “oh, I guess that’s not so bad then.”  Pointing out actual lies, and the fallacies.  I could write a thesis today packed with solid political analysis of why what is happening is morally wrong, wrong-headed and dangerous.

And it wouldn’t matter. That’s the problem. I have people in my FB feed who voted for Trump, who will shout right back with their arguments about the need for national security, for economic strength, that this is now the conservative turn in power and I lost and need to accept that. (I think they are very wrong, but they don’t, and that’s what matters.  My sense of wrongness doesn’t change their views). My responses will be filtered through their interpretive lenses, not heard as remotely valid.

So what do we do, in this standoff?

One of the practices I have drawn from in conflictual situations over the past 15 years came from a group in Boston called the Public Conversations Project (PCP).  In the 80s and 90s, the anti-abortion and pro-choice discourses had become completely intractable, and there was a huge amount of violence against the clinics.  The people in the PCP recognized that there was no way that either “side” was going to change their political views, but had a hunch that they might be able to tone down the rhetoric if they could get them to the point of seeing each other as human beings, and in that, try to get them to acknowledge just a little bit of grey in their own perspectives.  This is a great short video about the project.


The most important thing to note about this project is that it didn’t frame “both sides” as “equally right” or “equally wrong” — it was the anti-choice side that was clearly being violent. But the responses of the pro-choice side were also keeping both sides locked in the way of seeing each other that reinforced the violence.  That is the key to successful dialogic communication:  recognizing that even if you are “right,” something you are doing is keeping you both from moving forward.  You are both co-creating reality.

This is the hardest thing to let in:  that even in our moral groundedness, in our genuine deep-rooted recognition and conviction that the other side is causing harm (literally blowing up abortion clinics or enacting racist policies), we can’t disrupt other people’s equally deep convictions (wrong though they may be) by arguing with them.  We have to somehow find a way to disrupt the pattern of interaction so that something new might emerge.

Dialogic space is about letting in, just a little bit, an understanding of why other people care so deeply and so differently from you about the same things.  You’re not going to get very far looking for “grey areas” in discussing the travel ban itself, but you could get somewhere in trying to hear the fear lurking behind a desire for “greater national security.”  And conversely, I would hope that a fierce Trump supporter would be able to hear the human desire to be able to protect vulnerable people, the fear of what happens when you start to shut people out.

Dialogic practices are a very tough sell right now.  Any suggestion of “listening to the other side” prompts immediate arguments that “I can assure you that the other side isn’t interested in hearing from you” or that and that wishy washy liberals have tried too hard to understand tyrants who just bulldoze us right over.  I’m not suggesting that it would be helpful to create a drumming circle with Trump, Bannon and his cronies — they are not available for dialogic engagement (polite way of saying, beyond the pale). But some of their supporters are.  And there’s also absolutely no sustainable, generative place whatsoever for people in the US to go together if they can’t get out of the polarized discourse where each other’s perspective is immediately shouted down.

Right now, we are in a place where we mostly live in social/media echo chambers that reinforce our own interpretive repertoires, where fake news proliferates, and satire and parody are indistinguishable from real news (did Jimmy Carter really point out that he had to give up his peanut farm when he became president, or was it The Onion?  Both are equally possible). We’re not going to get to dialogic communication on twitter or reddit. But somewhere, we have to find a way to hear and honour the fear, the hope, the humanness behind each “side” — among the ordinary people who elected this administration because they hoped for something.  Somewhere in their, there is a match to “our” side’s hope for care (which Lakoff articulates beautifully here). Because that’s the only way we can hope to make something different.







Moments of grace

Two of the people I’ve learned the most from in this life taught me about moments of grace. Those moments of sacred connection and mystery in our everyday worlds that remind us of what is most possible.

My youngest niece is a whirl of energy and strength. A pure moment of grace at my sister’s wedding last night: dancing with the littlest M as she tugged and whirled me into her vortex. Pure energy and light and force.

mica dervish

“If there was a really cute bunny and you,” I said to her, “who would be cuter?” “I don’t know!” she said, immediately turning herself into a bunny.

Moments of Grace

There is a little girl in my arm’s length sphere who has been dying for nearly a year of a brain tumour. Her name is Stella; I don’t know her, though I know her grandmother, and I’ve been following the blog her mothers have written of this time-beyond-all-we-can handle.

They’re stunningly good writers, stunningly honest about confronting loss in watching one’s tiny miraculous child’s body shut down cell by cell. I have nothing to offer them, really, but have been reading and commenting because something in me says it’s important to bear witness, to honour their experience by quietly acknowledging it. It’s nearly unbearable to read about — the tiniest of inklings about what it must be like to live with it for months and months and months, saying goodbye in thousands of minutes.

One of the things that’s struck me over the year is the choices made by Grace, Stella’s cousin. Close in age, they were peers a year ago. Grace has grown in that time, while Stella has gone backwards. And now, Stella’s parents write sentences like this: At 2pm Stella fell into a deep sleep and was woken up at 5:30pm to Gracie kissing her cheeks. Gracie and Stella cuddled in bed for awhile and Gracie read Stella a storybook.

The photographs show a pragmatically present tiny girl holding her limp cousin’s hand, loving her.

One of the concepts Barnett and Kim crafted to describe spaces where we see life at its most breathtaking, profound, connecting, is “moments of grace.” Those moments where we see a kind of capital-M Mystery, something more powerful and good that seems beyond familiar human capacity. I keep looking at the images of this little girl, grace personified, reminding me of how to be present.

Being Choiceful (+ #135/136)

In the middle of May, we had a event — what we called a “collaborative” — for a diverse group of our clients. The first half day was focused on the personal, where we guided the participants through crafting their own “change stories” — i.e. how did they want to live into their own goals and intentions and difference they wanted to make in the world.

It was relatively unstructured, and I was surprised at how effective the cutting and pasting and ripping images out of a magazine part was for people I didn’t expect to welcome the “craftiness.”

This was one of my favourites, a woman who was upfront about the fact that her style and politics were quite different that many of the people in her sphere, illustrated not only by the image of the duck, but by the way it actually leaps off the side of the page.


The event also meant I got to have my sister and one of my best friends/business partner in the same place, and to delight that they’ve crafted a friendship and working relationship of their own.

The second day was more work focused, with several of our clients talking about their own change experiences, and doing some collective learning about how to lead change, make a difference, influence the world, in a generative and vital way.


One of the themes that keeps coming up for me, in so many contexts, is about making choices. We talked about it a lot at our collaborative, telling this group-that-gets-us the story of a woman from another client group who really, really REALLY doesn’t like our use of the word ‘choiceful.’ She’s one of the folks who encounters us in different settings, but never *chose* to work with us (that word again), and has chosen to be antagonistic with us rather than collaborative. At a large holiday cocktail party a few months ago, she sought out Danny just to say “if you use that word ‘choiceful’ one more time, I’m going to hit you.” When we encountered her again, in a large group event, she came up to us at a break and said “I’m counting, and you haven’t used the word ‘choiceful’ yet. I’m warning you, if you do, I’ll hit you.” She was *not* being playful. I tried to make it playful by saying “oh, you’ll have to get through me to get to him” — and she sternly waved her finger at me and said “I have a black belt….” and melted away.

That session did not go well.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about making choices, shaping and being more intentional. It just keeps coming up. I think I posted about how when I did my own little “what do I want to be when I grow up” cutting and pasting a few weeks ago, I kept settling on this image as deeply appealing:

The image is from one of this year’s Governor General winners in Visual Arts — someone I’ve not encountered before, named Ron Martin. It appealed, in contrast to a spattering, angry Riopelle canvas.

I posted about this at the time, about how some instinct was telling me to sort, to shape, to find a space in life that was just as colourful, just as vibrant, but more contained, more deliberate, more intentional.

This contrast keeps coming up: from random spatterings to something complex but comprehensible. In some ways, picking the things to do in this way is a bit easier. My friend Age joked with me on the phone yesterday “if I hear you decide to take up sky-diving, I’ll warn you off.” That part, though, even for an impulsive gatherer-of-experiences like me, is relatively simple. Think twice before getting on a plane. Create an amnesty about learning brand new things (not the year to learn kinyarwanda or portugese, clearly). Be intentional about spending money, going to events, moment to moment activities. What am I creating if I choose to play one, four, 13 games of Bubble Witch Saga on Facebook instead of reading the fascinating Proust was a Neuroscientist I haven’t cracked open yet? What am I making if I put off writing up the report for that chafing event where that psychiatrist threatened us for using the word “choiceful”?

Those parts are practices, and not *easy* — but they’re simple. It’s simple, when I get home from a meeting mid-afternoon, to make a decision to head for my desk and a cup of tea and digging into a client request, rather than veering to the couch (or worse, my nest of a bed), to mindlessly surf website after website, while mentally promising that when the clock hits a certain point, THEN the work will restart.

What’s more difficult is a kind of choicefulness about moments, about presence. In CMM parlance — the communication theory I work with — we call this “critical moments” or “bifurcation points.” These are conversational junctures where making one choice rather than another has consequences. Most of the time, the way we operate, these don’t *feel* like choices — they happen quickly and “automatically”, and before we know it, we’ve created some kind of conflict, or wandered into territory that we didn’t “intend,” find ourselves more agitated or unheard than we hoped.

I’ve been noticing, lately, more junctures where my choices (which don’t feel like choices) belie a not-so-choiceful, not-so-mindful presence. A moment with a client where I responded to a wondering expression of anxiety with a gentle rebuttal, not a question. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” the participant said, anxious and a bit querulous. “I don’t think that’s true,” I said, with just the tiniest of edges. That may seem innocuous, but it shut her down — which I knew would happen. It was a choice, really, to call on “impatient cate self,” not “open, generative consultant self.” It was especially egregious on my part because it was territory we’d trod before, many times, and if I’d opened the question up to the group, they would have responded. She was on edge, this woman, and ended up in tears a few minutes later. I made a choice about how to be in that moment.

That’s a simple moment, but my life has been rife with these points lately. Where before you know it, I’m arguing with the star alliance woman who won’t let me use the lounge, rather than effectively using my wiles like the small bachelorette party I saw in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago who got moved onto an earlier flight without charge through being persistent, gentle and charming. Much more consequentially, finding myself in antagonistic relationships with people I need to collaborate with on the Uganda project, directly contradicting the “change story” I set out for myself on the first day of our collaborative.

At my best, my own ‘change story’ — or ‘best self’ — is about interacting in ways that enliven people, that help them discover and act into possibilities they hadn’t seen (or invented) before. I help people see what’s beyond right in front of them. I step in. I listen. This does happen, a lot of the time. The clients who were in the room with us in mid-May respond to that part of us, value it.

And, it requires a lot of work to be in that place, to take the time and the space to explore, to find the collaboration that I *know* always moves us forward — whether the us is a client group or my most intimate relationship. And I haven’t been living the practices I know make this possible very well. We talked about this in my weekend with friends in Arizona, our work on “spiritual practice.” There’s something in there about making the choices to leave room for the other person’s humanity, create a mutual agenda and story, hear more than asserting. And I’m noticing — noticing — noticing — how I need to bring this practice back into my day to day interactions.

It’s not about “being a saint,” as Finch sometimes terms it. It’s about being conscious of the relationships I want to live in — the impact I want to have on people — and trying to bring that to life. Recognizing the pragmatic factor that generosity begets generosity. And when it doesn’t, I still like myself better when I make choices that make me feel “relationally generous.”