Last Saturday, the day after the election was called by the AP, I was desperate to get a foothold into dialogue with anyone who did not vote for my candidate.
I knew it was risky, even foolish. But I felt compelled to do something, anything, to step outside my protected, political comfort zone into the unknown of the other side.
I posted on social media (well, I posted, deleted and then reposted) the following:
Will you join me in a dialogue to listen productively to one another? To create an environment of rewarded vulnerability, which is the definition of psychological safety and at the core of any high-performing social unit - and democracy?
I asked two questions and framed them by requesting that people imagine they were speaking to a beloved elder who did not vote for your candidate.
- What is the most urgent issue in this country you want to see addressed right now and why?
- What do you hear or understand to be the most urgent issue to be addressed right now from people who did not vote as you did and why?
I created Rules of Engagement for safety in our communication and promised I would delete any comment (like the mute button in the debates) that did not protect the boundaries of civil discourse.
Are You My Neighbor?
Later that afternoon, I met my neighbor while walking our dogs. We have never spoken of politics before, probably sensing we have opposing views. I decided to dive in. I asked if she were happy or sad with the results. She responded: Sad.
I shared with her the above questions I was asking on social media. She answered that her priority is election reform. This resonated with me and I felt encouraged by our commonality. I shared that my most pressing issue is COVID, and I would like to see everyone wearing masks.
I swear she gasped.
I offended her, I thought, horrified. Then I thought: Wait, I startled her by saying people should wear masks? Now I nearly gasped with the realization that I didn’t really know my neighbor at all.
We took tentative steps forward to engage and the more she talked, the more I realized that beyond our pleasantries, we knew nothing about one another.
Maybe this is how Yugoslavia fell apart, I thought. Friendly, polite people co-existing together but never taking trust to the level of vulnerability. Going from polite and passive (let’s not go there) small talk to raw aggression: You believe WHAT?
Dropping the Knife of Judgment
That’s the title of the chapter I opened to recently in the wonderful book The Way of Grace: The Transforming Power of Ego Relaxation by Miranda MacPherson. She quotes the Persian poet Hafiz:
Once a young woman said to me,
“Hafiz, what is the sign of someone who knows God?”
I became very quiet, and looked deep into her eyes,
then replied, “My dear, they have dropped the knife.
Someone who knows God has dropped
the cruel knife that most so often use upon their tender self
Dropping the knife of judgment that we use consistently on others, and even more viciously on ourselves. Dropping this knife because every attack erodes our ability to think rationally, clearly and toward a common goal.
From a 14th-century poet and author to contemporary researchers, theologians, social scientists and more, there is a continuity of thought and understanding.
Releasing Our Discretionary Effort
To paraphrase Tim Clark and his research in the 4 stages of psychological safety:
When we are in judgment and do not feel safe, we hold back in fear and freeze our discretionary effort. We have stepped into an environment of punished vulnerability. In contrast, when the environment feels safe, we lean in and engage offensively and release our discretionary effort. We have entered an environment of psychological safety and rewarded vulnerability.
But is it possible to feel safe now? In a COVID epidemic and with ample rancor toward our fellow citizens, is vulnerability even possible?
Yes, it\'s more than possible, it is essential and we each play a significant part regardless of the larger environment. We can grab a foothold and radiate out an inclusive microculture within a chaotic macroculture. This is not wishful thinking. It\'s how positive contagion works.
To dropping the knife. To creating footholds of rewarded vulnerability. One neighbor, one person, one team member at a time.