Deep conversations about motivating experiences strike a more civil chord

| Kathy Tomlin | November 17, 2010 | 0 Comments

The first night of the Twin’s baseball playoff found 80 souls gathered at St. John the Baptist Church in New Brighton to explore the issue of civility in civic discourse.

People came from some 20-plus parishes that night, and many ­others would have attended had we not held the event on Wednesday’s “parish education night.”

The entire staff at the Office for Social Justice was struck by the fact that people from all over the archdiocese really wanted to wrestle with this issue. Of course, in the midst of an election season and the negative political ads, it was more than obvious how much we need to focus on discourse rather than shouting, and on being civil rather than rude and obnoxious.

During our evening together, Uni­versity of St. Thomas professor Mike Klein just began to scratch the surface of this topic. I personally found  the discussion of distinguishing be­tween positions and interests very helpful.

Taking a position

Typically when people get into a “conversation,” each person displays a position on an issue and seldom, if ever, understands what is behind the position the other person has taken.

For example, people who have strong feelings on immigration are not typically shy about sharing their position on the issue: The United States is being taken over by undocumented immigrants — they should go back home and get in line. Or conversely: The United States has historically been a melting pot — we should continue to welcome the stranger and not get hung up on national security.

Those two statements are positions. But they are more than that. Behind the positions are interests that inform the listener at a deeper level. We just need to take the time to ask the right questions and actually enter into a conversation.

If more time was spent and less judgment offered, could we get be­yond the one-line stance to the interests that drive the position? If so, we might find we have more common ground and agreement than was apparent at first blush.

Considering interests

What interests might actually lie behind the first statement?


» Being unemployed but seeing Latinos working.

» Anglo-Saxon interpretation of law — strict construction.

» A vacation to Arizona.

» The opinion of a favorite politician.

Conversely, these interests might actually lie behind the second statement:

» Education in American history.

» Experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala.

» Fluency in Spanish.

» Father was a landscaper who hired Latinos.

Digging deeper into interests and  having a conversation that listens to the experiences of others without challenging motives might unearth a much deeper understanding of  why they take the positions they do.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that we will agree in the end. But it will allow us to understand at a deeper level, reflect on the meaning of that understanding, and analyze if there is any common ground that can move us forward.

For sure, this approach is bound to capitalize on our responsibility to each other and might make for fewer “parking lot” conversations that occur after meetings — when people air their differences in a less than constructive way.

In this post-election time (prior to the election of 2012), let’s develop some new habits that make a serious attempt to listen more deeply.

Kathy Tomlin is director of the Catholic Charities Office for Social Justice.

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Category: Faith and Justice