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
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
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.