Moving Out of a Fixed Perspective through Compassionate Discourse

You made it through the holidays and those challenging, awkward, possibly heated dinner table discussions about the election. Some of those people you may not see again for another year, yet with a new president in office and much change and uncertainty coming, we still need a way forward.

Many people are struggling to find the right balance between the passion they feel for their own views and beliefs and a desire for peace and mutual respect. You may be asking yourself: Do I take a stand, get involved and take action, or do I ignore the news and retreat into a bubble of ignorance in the name of goodwill? How do I engage with those who hold different views without making them enemies? How do I show compassion for all without compromising my own values?

The goal of compassionate discourse isn’t to find a nicer way to prove you are right, but rather to find a point of connection. Relationship, not only shared words or emotions, can be a vehicle for mutual understanding and respect. This is how hearts and minds begin to change, even if the result is just being more open to listening.

Have you ever come across a characteristic or behavior of someone you love that is ultimately a deal breaker for you and you have to cut ties? Have you had the experience of wrestling with such an issue and then ultimately being able to acknowledge the challenge, recognizing your continued love for the wholeness of the person despite their flaws? “Relationships are about having the strength to persevere through difficult terrain, finding empathy for the other even when you are at odds, and recognizing when the relationship needs a time out or to come to an end,” explains Sandra T. Mann, PsyD, therapist and Director of Clinical Training at Maria Droste Counseling Center.

As you choose your next steps, find yourself in an uncomfortable place, or engage with someone who has different views, keep these tips in mind:

  • Acknowledge that different perspectives exist and ask permission to further the discussion. None of us wants to feel blindsided by a tense discussion and sometimes we’re not in the right space to engage.
  • Stop shaming, blaming, and stereotypes. We tend to think and speak in generalities (“Republicans do this…” or “All liberals think that…”). Try to focus on your experiences and those of the other person. How does a particular incident or policy affect you directly? Why is it so emotional for you?
  • Consider the possibility of middle ground. “So many issues are polarizing—your side or mine, us vs. them—which only fuels conflict,” Mann acknowledges. “Are there pieces of the issue you do agree on? These can be places to discover shared values, build rapport, and recognize a place you might coexist that lies between.”
  • Be prepared to listen, especially when you don’t agree; be sure you aren’t just planning your response. Listen for any areas of agreement and build from there.
  • Acknowledge the needs of others to take time to process. “We aren’t all masters of verbal debate or thoughtful deliberation,” says Mann. She suggests that if you, or the other person, need more time to respond, take a moment to slow down and breathe.
  • Check in with yourself, and remember the high-pressure environment. The inauguration and marches just happened, and new developments continue to pop up in the news, through social media, and in email.  Emotions are still high from all perspectives. Some on both sides are feeling empowered, while others feel disempowered.
  • If possible, take the conversation offline and meet in person. Online discussions can easily lead to misunderstandings because they lack the ability to hear tone of voice or see body language and facial expressions that inform and give greater context to what is being said. It’s also much easier for those not used to being assertive to engage more aggressively, perhaps with less foresight about the repercussions. And let’s not forget those quietly observing, and the impact our words and more impassioned discourse have on them.
  • Find a stopping point. You are not likely to change someone’s worldview in one sitting. Achieving even an element of open-mindedness is a success. End when the conversation is in a place of agreement (even if that is just acknowledging and allowing space for the emotional response you both have to the issue). Acknowledge things you learned about the other person’s perspective, invite feedback, and revisit the topic again later.

If the current divisive social and political climate is making it difficult for you to function and/or is impacting your relationships, we can help. Contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600 for more information or to connect with a therapist.  

Need Help?

If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

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Note: These tips were adapted from SURJ’s Thanksgiving Toolkit – Bringing Justice Home. (ShowingUpforRacialJustice.org). We adapted them in an effort to be more inclusive of all perspectives.