I am in the car with my 8-year-old, listening for the 10th straight time to his newly favorite Beatles song, ?We Can Work It Out.? He looks over at me and asks: ?When there are two sides going to war, do the people from one side get to talk to the people of the other side?? At just that moment, the Beatles sing, ?Life is very short, and there?s no time / For fussing and fighting, my friend.?
As usual, the profoundest questions are many times the simplest. But simple doesn?t mean easy. For instance, ?Can we talk?? Opening up an organization or community or any other group of people so that everyone can talk freely, especially when differences of opinion exist, often seems nearly impossible. Where do you begin? Based on my experience working with community groups, activist organizations, businesses, and schools as a community organizer and organizational adviser, I?ve gathered a few ideas on how to get a conversation rolling?which can work even when tension is in the air, or sides have already been taken.
Any and all gatherings are a chance for people to connect. Serve refreshments, make it a potluck, leave plenty of time for informal conversation. The most important outcome often will be something that?s not even on the agenda.
In trying to engage with people?especially when they don?t seem to share your beliefs?start by asking about their lives, where they?re from and how they got to where they are now. Tell your own story in response. You may have more in common than you expected.
Listen with All You?ve Got
Set aside judgments and preconceived assumptions. Focus on people?s stories, paying close attention to events, landscapes, and other details. Then, after acknowledging what they?ve said, ask them to hear your story.
Affirm something another person has said, and follow up by asking them for elaboration on a point that interests you. As elementary as this sounds, it truly helps people to feel comfortable and become more open to what everyone has to say.
Don?t Try To Convince Anyone of Anything
Conversation is not a competitive event. The point of dialogue is to really know what others think and feel. You want to work with these people, not defeat them.
Take the Next Step
These steps set the stage for bigger questions. My favorite way to broaden the discussion is to ask everyone in the room to talk about the biggest challenges they face right now in their work, their community, or their life. It?s startling how people?s answers often mirror your own, creating the common ground needed to make a difference in your community and the world. As the Beatles sang, we can work it out.
Julie Ristau, co-publisher of Utne, is former director of the national League of Rural Voters and co-founder of the Regeneration Partnership.