Moving Through Anger to Dialogue

We are in a time of enormous turbulence in our country with focused energy aimed at a set of complex cultural issues long overdue for attention and reform.  It is at once a time of great potential but also great risk as the heightened passion will either move us to embrace change or further entrench and widen the division across segments of our society.  The factor which will determine which of these paths prevails is whether that passion will foster deep, thoughtful, respectful dialogue or provoke increasing anger and recrimination.

This is not a plea to set aside the passion or complacently accept incremental change. On the contrary, it is only with passion that we will have the courage and energy to finally confront the complex and multi-layered issues standing in the way of progress.

Rather, it is an observation that passion which finds form in anger precludes getting to a deeper understanding of what lies beneath our different points of view. It starts from the presumption that if you don’t share my point of view you must not share my goals, or values or moral commitment to the cause.  It triggers everyone into a mode of self-protection focused on defending one’s integrity or values rather than on the issues at hand.

When Passion Triggers Polarization

In the current environment, the predisposition to anger and moral outrage is apparent on all sides.  As we face the reality of our deplorable history around systemic racism, the outrage finds form in divisive and inaccurate assumptions that the real agenda of the protesters is destruction and anarchy or that the real agenda of the “establishment” is to perpetuate the status quo.  Similar polarization can be found across a whole array of issues of social and economic policy.

From the presumptive point of view that these factions have divergent goals or values there is little chance of meaningful dialogue. Without the genuine belief that most (not all) share a common goal to create a more just and compassionate world, it is impossible to get to a deeper understanding of one another’s experiences, perspectives, fears and aspirations in the path to get there.  It is impossible to have generative dialogue on how to impact the complex, multi-layered issues that are the product of generations of systemic racism and conscious, and unconscious, bias. If a person does not feel safe to share their perspective for fear it will provoke a response of outrage and accusations around intent, there is little chance we will develop the understanding needed to bridge the gap in our lived experiences and find a common path forward.

Creating a Safe Space

Here are a few suggestions to consider that can help create a safe space for deeper dialogue:

  1. Start with a presumption of good intent, a belief that others want to do the right thing but may differ in their thoughts about the path to get there. It is naïve to think that everyone shares a commitment to the same goals, but if you start with the assumption of divergent values or goals there is very little hope for dialogue. Each party spends time protecting their self-interest rather than seeking solutions that advance the shared goal while respecting the legitimate needs of one another.
  2. Be aware of when you have been triggered into an emotional response so that you have the opportunity to choose how you will respond.  Many times, there are physical cues which can help raise your level of self-awareness: increased heart rate; red face; clenched muscles; accelerated breathing; change in posture.
  3. Pause before making up an assumption about the other person’s intentions.  As Stephen Covey says, “We judge ourselves by our intention and others by their behavior….” from which we assume their intentions. And those assumptions are often at least incomplete if not totally wrong.
  4. Seek to understand. Before making assumptions or accusations about others’ intentions, ask and then listen, deeply, to the response.  Work to get to an understanding of the experiences, assumptions and data that lie beneath their words or behavior.  Resist the temptation to see differences in ideas as conflicts to be won or lost. Think of those differences as adding to the body of information and insight with which you can work together to forge a path forward.
  5. Remain passionate while recognizing the issues are complex and the journey will be uneven.  Remain impatient but don’t lose heart or revert to anger if progress takes more time than you would like.  Find and harvest near term wins where opportunity exists and use those early wins to build trust and confidence in your ability, together, to work through issues that are more complex and multi-layered.
  6. Be willing to experiment and learn from failure. Resist the search for the “silver bullet” and chart a course for meaningful, measurable and sustained progress.

If the current trend of increasing anger, decreasing trust, and polarization continues it is hard to see how we can come together to chart a path forward. But it is clear that staying where we are is not an option.  The notion that this is a battle between sides to be won or lost is a false choice. The only sustainable way forward is together, built on a shared vision and mutual respect.  Not everyone will sign on for that vision but persist in the belief that most people desire a world of justice, equity and peace. And work to create the conditions required for the deep dialogue needed to move us forward to that vision.

Robert Porter
About the author

Robert (Bob) Porter is an accomplished organizational leader with over 30 years’ experience in health system leadership.
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