Civil Discourse

“If we want there to be peace in the world, we have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid in our hearts, to stay with it.  We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility.  That’s the true practice of peace.” (Pema Chodrun, Practicing Peace in Times of War).

The recent shootings in Arizona were – on many levels – heartbreaking.  For the lives lost, for the pain of those left behind, for the Tucson community and for our nation. For the 9-year old girl interested in public service whose life was snuffed out in an act of violence – mirroring the violence on 9/11/2001 – her actual birth day.  I don’t know what the irony is in that, but it seems there is one.

It wasn’t surprising to observe the over-reactions focused on guessing the shooter’s motivations, how he was influenced, and the resulting finger pointing – from both the left and right.   It’s always easer to blame the other, than each of us taking stock in how we show up in the world and what we can do to come together, rather than break apart.

Finger pointing only regurgitates negativity and a victim/perpetrator mentality. The more we allow ourselves to be part of it, the more negative energy is created. As the Buddha said, “violence begets violence.”  It seems screaming about what’s wrong with the “other” is a form of violence, too.

And then President Obama really nailed it in his speech at the Arizona memorial service: “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” The President also focused on encouraging personal accountability and responsibility for how we show up in the world.

Shortly after the President’s speech, I was heartened to hear one of Tucson’s law enforcement people mention that we have to find ways to have deeper, more meaningful conversations rather than the current state of public discourse.

As an organization development practitioner, and having worked inside a prison for the past 8 years (imagine collaborating with prison officials to build a garden on a prison yard…!), there are some effective (and well-tested) methods to facilitate “civil discourse:”

  • Have groups develop their own set of agreements – how will they be together? (they must decide) This creates the stick-to-it-ness and accountability to each other.
  • Ask “Provocative” questions rather than having the answers. As Peter Block would say, valuing the questions more than the answers creates conversations that evoke accountability and commitment (for more information his approach, see his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging).  The questions are designed to draw out our common hopes, dreams and visions for a different future…without bias or judgment.
  • Use Appreciative Inquiry – a way to build on what works (through story-telling). This creates passion and energy around building a different future that honors strengths, not weaknesses (throwing the traditional SWOT analysis out the door!).
  • Encourage individual/civic leadership rather than dependence on our elected officials to “lead” us – in Peter Block’s words, becoming “Citizen Leaders.”  The processes mentioned above require a shift from dependence on others to personal action.
  • Breathe.

Each semester, at the prison, we begin our classes with a combination of the above processes to encourage meaningful, civil discourse which creates a deeper intimacy that inspires men to be responsible for their personal and collective healing.  It also requires facilitation that is free from needing to control the outcomes.

Shifting to civil discourse and real engagement requires a radical shift in thinking (and feeling).  It requires working through that which triggers us on the deepest levels (noticing the internal “trigger” is a great first step!)

Back to Pema Chodrun:

“Once you see what you do, how you get hooked and how you get swept away [triggered], it’s hard to be arrogant…when we are not blinded by the intensity of our emotions, when we allow a bit of space, a chance for a gap, when we pause, we naturally know what to do.  We begin, due to our wisdom, to move toward letting go and fearlessness.  Due to our own wisdom, we gradually stop strengthening habits that only bring more pain to the world” (from: Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears).

How will you choose to show up differently in the world that will contribute to your personal healing and the collective good?

About Beth Waitkus

Gardening as a revolution. Most recently, as Founder & Executive Director of the Insight Garden Program, I built a $1+ million nonprofit that works across sectors to provide experiential, transformative gardening and landscaping training in prisons, participant re-entry programs, and advocacy for systems change at the intersections of environmental, criminal, and social justice. To become environmentally aware, all people need is a little time in the garden, or outdoors -- nature teaches us everything we need to know.
This entry was posted in Associational Life, Citizenship, Community, Grassroots Change, Leadership, Organization Development, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Civil Discourse

  1. Patty Beach says:

    Hi Beth,
    I’m currently teaching a 4 part webinar about using polarity management to effectively communicate political messages to the media. The audience is made up of political advocates and non-profit organization staff. We noticed that the enrollment went up right after the Tuscon tragedy. It’s challenging but also exciting to see so many politically active leaders become well versed at leading a conversation that doesn’t lead to further polarization. I’m hopeful that this can make a difference and lead us into what we need most now, the ability to find resolutions that really work for the challenges at hand.

  2. Bill Jacobs says:

    Well said, Beth. Improving civil discourse would certainly be beneficial for everyone. I like how you practice what you preach, and how it really seems to work. Its hard for me to imagine collaborating with prison officials to build a garden. It seems like something that couldn’t be done without some divine assistance.

    Its been a while since I’ve read anything by Peter Block, so I may have to check out some of his recent work.

    Thanks for another interesting read.

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