Everything is different somehow. Can you feel it? Ever since 2:30 pm on Wednesday, February 14, everything has changed. There’s palpable energy pulsating in the air. People are gathering and passionate voices are being raised, demanding lasting and meaningful policy changes. There is a burning desire to transform tragedy into meaning, to make concert venues, shopping malls, places of worship, movie theaters, nightclubs, work places and especially our children’s schools safe environments once again.
Grasping for Answers & Accountability
As has come to be expected, there is much noise and discord, particularly in the wilds of social media. As we begin (again) the process of identifying what needs to change in the wake of this tragedy and why, arguments abound. Heated and generally unproductive, these interactions (I struggle, frankly, to even call them “conversations”) fail to move us closer to answers. Often it feels like they actually push us back. Distanced both from each other and the answers we seek, we dig deeper trenches and fortify the walls that divide us.
But through noise there is a shared voice emerging, and it has no political or religious affiliation. This voice is clear and steady, and calls us to end this senseless cycle of tragedy and grief. It is the voice of love and reason, and it demands to be heard.
Young people in particular have heard a collective call to action and they are responding in droves. They are no longer willing to accept the status quo, and are prepared to challenge our electeds to abandon the gun lobby and choose them. They are coming together to demand change, organizing with stunning effectiveness, and leading the nation to the precipice of social change. And all the while, they are restoring my hope for and faith in our future.
Transforming Tragedy Starts with You & Me
Following the massacre, social and news media feeds exploded with anger, fury, and the now meaningless “thoughts and prayers”. It took me a few hours to gather my thoughts sufficiently to respond and all I could muster was, “I feel ill. I wrote something for Valentine’s Day, but given today’s tragic events this feels more fitting. Only deliberate action will fix this. And it starts with loving others fiercely & relentlessly. It starts NOW. With you & me.”
We’ve all been watching tragedy play out through the lens of our television, computer and mobile device screens for far, far too long, and we know it. It’s become almost commonplace, and that is, in and of itself, a tragedy.
Collectively, we’ve had it. We’ve had it with our children being killed and with teachers having to defend our children with their lives. We’ve had it with watching our friends, neighbors and fellow Americans go out for an evening, never to return home because their venue became the scene of yet another mass shooting. And we’ve had it with mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and children having to say goodbye to their loved ones. Deep in our bellies where the truth churns and and our passions simmer, we’ve had it and we know this crisis demands our immediate, undivided and unrelenting attention.
Over the past week, I’ve observed a lot of “discussions” playing out in the news media and online. I’d like to share some failed-communications patters that have emerged with you in hopes that it will help facilitate honest, meaningful and productive discussions in our homes, schools, workplaces and communities. We need to heal some very deep wounds, and no matter what solutions we pursue, building mutual support and understanding through thoughtful discussion will be vital to our long-term success.
1. Check your motives at the door.
Before engaging in any discussion, know what your own motive is. If you’re open to having real dialogue (which will likely involve having your ideas challenged and require some level of personal reflection and introspection), then please proceed. If you’re there only to stubbornly defend your own views or to agitate others, kindly turn around and go back where you came from. You’re not helping and we have work to do.
Similarly, if you find yourself engaged in “discussion” with someone who has demonstrated unwillingness to have an honest conversation (or who is clearly a “troll”), I recommend that you politely disengage and take your efforts elsewhere. Your time and energy are valuable resources; use them wisely and kindly.
2. Be aware of your current disposition.
Most (not all, but most) of us enter conversations from one of two dispositions. Either:
- you believe you know how to fix this and are laser focused on promoting your preferred solution – OR –
- you’re so overwhelmed by all of the complexity of the issues behind this recurrent tragedy, that you’re unable to articulate your views effectively.
I’ve flip-flopped between the two several times over the course of the week, and imagine many others have (and will continue to do so) as well. It’s useful to be aware both of your own disposition and that of the people you’re speaking with.
If you find yourself in the “I know how to fix this, just listen to me (me, me)” camp, you might consider making an extra effort to be open to input coming from others, and perhaps even actively solicit input and feedback from friends, neighbors and community members. Devote effort to broadening your view and listening to others. Meet your internal resistance with courage and honesty. Let it teach you.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay. Know that you aren’t alone, and that your intuitive sense that this is enormously complicated is on target. You personally aren’t tasked with identifying and implementing the comprehensive solution, but your participation in the process is vital. Take a little time to get mentally clear without completely detaching, and then find a way to get involved.
3. Be aware of context.
Violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Nothing does. We need to understand the national landscape that is creating, enabling or encouraging mass shootings. The United States is the only “developed” nation facing this tragedy with the frequency and scale we do. It’s time to step back to look at context comprehensively to identify the tens or hundreds of micro-solutions that will ultimately comprise the larger solution.
I’ve read hundreds – maybe thousands – of perspectives on this over the last several days from many different people and almost all of them contain at least a nugget of truth or insight. Over the weekend, I felt compelled to sit down with pen and paper and try to depict all of these perspectives and theories in one comprehensive view. Several iterations later, and with input from many people (both friends and strangers), it has evolved into this mind map. Broadly depicting the context and causality of mass shootings in the United States, I intended to illustrate the collective opinions of the community (not my own); as such it includes some ideas that I agree with, and some that I struggle with.
It’s complexity can overwhelm, but that needn’t be the case. Look at the entire map and recognize that there are multiple places where you can exercise some influence, and remember that the solution will almost certainly be multifaceted. I hope you find it useful in opening up your mind and your conversations to new perspectives and solutions.
4. Be aware of language.
Language matters. Every word we select in dialogue has impact. And I’m watching conversations fall apart due to misunderstandings that originate – at least in part – from ambiguity and misuse of language.
The mass media uses “technical” terminology casually and, often, incorrectly. Reporters use terms like “mass shooting” and “assault rifle” improperly, confusing many of us and leading us into frustrating or blocked discussions.
In conversation, actively watch for disconnects resulting from ambiguous or improper use of terminology. If you sense that language is challenging your discussion, seek to clarify and establish a mutual understanding of the words you’re using. Do so with humility, remembering that we’re all on this journey together.
5. Put your listening ears on.
Feeling truly heard is so validating, but rarely do I see it happen. In theory, listening seems so simple, but in reality, it can be very difficult as competing priorities vie for our attention, compromising our ability to focus. If you’re going to have a deep, challenging, honest, transformational discussion you must create an environment in which it can happen. Here are a few things to consider.
Put your phone away and turn the TV, the laptop and other electronics off. Sit someplace relatively quiet, and mentally dismiss your to-do list for the time being. Prioritize the conversation and the person(s) you’re having it with.
Listen with your eyes and your ears.
Observe body language and facial expressions. Note tone, pitch, and cadence of speech. Are there long pauses? No pauses at all? Allow for silences. There is so much more to listening than hearing words.
Listen to understand, not to respond.
In our tech-savvy-social-media age, we are more interested in replying than understanding. Listen with patience and empathy. Seek understanding and be willing to work for it. History won’t judge you by the quick wittiness of your response, but by your willingness to listen with a humble heart and an open mind.
Use reflective listening.
When someone states their position, it can be helpful to echo your interpretation of it back to them. This develops good faith (“she really seems to be trying to understand”), encourages the speaker to delve deeper and it helps you confirm that you’re hearing the intended message. If you’ve not understood, it gives you both an opportunity to get clear with each other before proceeding.
When tension runs high, be curious.
Emotionally charged topics can make us uncomfortable, and challenge us to stay calm and remain open. If you feel emotional or defensive, remember: this isn’t a personal attack. (If it is in fact a personal attack, please see #1.) Take a deep breath, ground yourself, and adopt a curiosity mindset. Ask open ended and clarifying questions, lots of them. Be fascinated with the ideas presented. Pretend to be an investigative journalist. Try to understand why the speaker holds their viewpoint. And take a mental note to spend some time reflecting on why it made you so uncomfortable later. That’s where the growth is.
6. Be willing to get vulnerable.
Has anyone ever done anything great without taking some chances? If you want progress and understanding, if you want to build coalitions rather than fortify our lamented national divide, and if you want to end this heartbreaking cycle of tragedy and grieving, you’re going to have to get vulnerable. Hiding behind a keyboard and barricading yourself behind like-minded allies isn’t going to work.
Put yourself out there. Be willing to make mistakes and be wrong. Open up to changing or evolving your opinion if you’re presented with compelling facts. Get out of your head and speak from your heart. You might feel a little naked, but it’s okay. The world needs your authenticity to shine, and for that to happen, vulnerability is a must.
As a high school student, I taught non-violent conflict resolution skills at the local elementary school. We taught the kids to open difficult discussions with, “So-and-so, can we talk about something important to me? When you do X it makes me feel Y.” Genuine expression of emotion softens us and opens the door to heartfelt discussion. It works, whether your in fourth grade, your forties or beyond.
Get comfortable saying “I feel” with honesty, integrity and conviction. Like everything in life, it takes practice, but if you stick with it, you might access new levels of trust and understanding in your own life that have eluded us as a nation for far too long now.
Transformation & Accountability Belong to You & Me
We need gun reform. And we also must make comprehensive changes that will cut across so many aspects of American culture that it’s mind-boggling. The enormity of it is intimidating and it’s vital that we not allow that to disempower or demotivate us.
We all must begin the work within our immediate circle of influence, by having open, honest and productive conversations with our families, friends, co-workers and with our communities. We should expand our horizons both by reaching out to like-minded strangers with whom we can partner. Equally important we must deliberately seek exposure to and understanding of dissenting opinions. Only when we understand the “opposition” can we begin to find common ground and opportunities for collaboration.
Several iterations into the mind map, someone thanked me for the time and effort I had invested in it. I appreciated the acknowledgement, but told him that I was compelled to do it because I felt that choosing to do nothing at this moment in history would make me complicit in the next mass shooting.
You have to decide what your role will be, and what you’re willing to do to move our national dialogue and policy forward. I would suggest though, that we all have an opportunity to change the way we engage in dialogue about difficult subjects, to be better listeners, and to seek out the common ground on which we can build effective and lasting solutions.
We can transform this tragedy into an enormous opportunity for growth and achievement. We all have a part to play. Find your role and give it your best. For our children and their future.