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The calls for more empathy are misplaced...

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…instead let's understand our differences

A dearth of empathy is not what ails us, as many claim. What is tripping us up is our belief that we are empathic while others are not. In reality, we are all selectively empathic.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I readily admit that I do not share the feelings of many others, but I can seek to understand, and in that understanding find a space to honor the other person’s feelings without believing that I need to, or even can, share them.

Psychologists have demonstrated that we grossly over-estimate our ability to understand what others think and feel, because we extrapolate from our own experiences and project them onto others. It raises the question of whether the empathy we feel towards another is truly about their feelings, or our own.

Empathy is generated from curiosity, inquiry, and kindness. Let’s keep the focus on these components of empathy, rather than empathy itself, because they are more easily practiced in our daily lives. Open-hearted listening is a generous gift to give another human being, whether or not we share their feelings.

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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This I believe...

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In everything I write and talk about, I return over and over to a core concept: that curiosity and humility have incredible power to transform relationships, which in turn open up new possibilities for collaboration and creative problem-solving.

I was heartened when one of my readers seized upon it in last month’s post and wrote to me, saying: “I love that you write about the value of more humility and more curiosity—what a different world when this is cultivated.”

Yes, indeed! Imagine the possibilities!

This inspired me to dig up an essay I drafted back in 2005, when National Public Radio had a program called “This I Believe,” and invited listeners to contribute their essays. I wrote about believing that if we all cultivated more curiosity towards others, and humility in ourselves, we could make the world a better place for all. Curiosity and humility help us thrive, both individually and collectively, because they give rise to authentic connections, mutual understanding, empathy, and creativity—even as we disagree or see things differently.

Humility is often conflated with shame or submission. It is neither. Humility means acknowledging that we don't see all there is to see and that there is more to learn, often from unexpected sources. Curiosity is an open query, not knowing where it will take us, knowing only that it will expand our understanding in some way. Curiosity and humility are the foundation of deep wisdom, and they help endeavors to flourish.

Coincidentally, this dovetails with a podcast I listened to recently with Esther Perel, a well-known psychotherapist. She talks about the power of curiosity to revitalize a relationship—any relationship—by checking our tendency to assume that we know all there is to know about someone.

Subscribe to our newsletter for more about Perel’s podcast, including a few snippets that really resonated with me.

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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Don't Believe Everything You Think

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Confirmation bias is a well-known phenomenon: we have a tendency to seek out information that supports our pre-existing views and to discount that which does not.

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A new research paper adds even more insight into how fickle our brains are. Thomas Kelly, at Princeton University, writes about belief polarization and points out that the timing of when we learn something matters:

“What I believe depends on the temporal order in which I encounter two opposing pieces of evidence. Thus, I can end up with diametrically opposed views, despite having been exposed to the same evidence. The only difference is the order in which I received it.”

Our thinking is much more fallible than we like to believe. A good antidote is to have more humility about our own views and more curiosity about opposing ones. We will gain a more complex and nuanced understanding of an issue, and in the long run, this will likely lead to more viable and inclusive solutions to persistent challenges.

Kelly’s paper is worth reading. It was forwarded to me by Brian Ziv, who has summarized some of Kelly’s arguments in the July newsletter. Thanks, Brian! Subscribe here to read the full newsletter.

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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What if we Soften our Approach?

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What if we took a softer approach—towards ourselves and others? What would that look like? What might happen as a result?
 
We rarely pause long enough to consider what a softer approach really means. All too often we associate softness with weakness, when in fact, softness is a strength because it creates space for something new to come forth.
 
For example, if I believe that I cannot let my guard down in a political discussion, or a negotiation, or with people with whom I am not in sync, then I harden my defenses and am ready to protect myself and my core beliefs. It creates an either/or dynamic that is linear. “Either we go your way or my way, or maybe we’ll compromise somewhere in the middle.”
 
A softer approach, on the other hand, creates a broader space of possibility. It’s not about giving up my boundaries or giving in to the other; it is quite the opposite. It is about gently stating where my boundaries are while also making space for the other. When I soften my approach, I create space for the other to say: “I hear you, and...” instead of “I hear you, but…”

I write this post after spending four days at a meditation retreat in upstate New York, led by Neil and Melanie Kirkbride of The Soft Road. They shared their warmth and knowledge with us about what it really means to be softer with ourselves and others. Their assistants—Cindy Wu and Caroline Aulis, also Vedic meditation teachers—guided us through deeply restorative meditations.

I offer all of them much gratitude for what they taught me and for inspiring this post. I have written more about the retreat in my June newsletter. Subscribe here to read the full newsletter.

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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Impact vs. Intent: Which is more important?

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In the public sphere, much is being said about impact vs. intent. “If the impact of what you said or did makes me uncomfortable or offended or stressed, then you are at fault and your intent is irrelevant.” Impact is being touted as the only thing that matters.

But there is little logic in many of these affirmations; only scolding. Ironically, the same journalists who condemned Joe Biden for the discomfort he caused with his overly affectionate behavior also took umbrage with a mother who expressed her discomfort with young women wearing revealing leggings in church. The scolds blamed Joe Biden for his impact (his intent was immaterial), and then they reversed themselves and blamed the mother for not understanding the intent (and the impact she felt was trivialized). There’s no internal logic; the only consistency is the scolding. It reminds me of the game called Whack-a-Mole, where the objective is simply to squash another, over and over again.

I believe that in most cases, intent and impact matter in equal measure. A few weeks ago, I texted and then called one of my daughters with a suggestion that I hoped would relieve some stress from her daily overload (medical school, planning a wedding, and an upcoming trip). The impact was the opposite of my intent. She gently told me that I was adding to her stress because I was one more person she needed to respond to. We quickly cleared the air, laughed about the difference between my intent and how she received it, and we parted with a better understanding of each other. When I learned the negative impact of my actions—in a dialogue that was mutually respectful—I was open to hearing what I could do that would actually be helpful (which was my intent).

The crux of the matter isn’t who is right and who is wrong; it is whether or not the parties involved see and respond to the dignity of the other. Every experience is an opportunity to grow and learn; it is our choice whether or not to take it.

Communication is about the give and take between two or more beings who have different perspectives and frames of reference. We bump up against differences and misinterpretations many times a day. To function effectively, we need to engage with each other, with curiosity and humility, to try to find new solutions that take differing views and reactions into account. It means that we clarify, seek understanding, and hopefully find some common ground.

Contact us to learn more about the communication skills we teach for leadership and effective collaboration.

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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Cultural Appropriation or Joyful Living?

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I shared the Easter sunrise with my mother on Sunday. She died in 2011, but she was present when I went down to the lake. I was overcome by emotion—not because of her presence, which was sweet and quiet, but by the simple beauty of a sunrise over Lake Michigan. It never fails to move me.

My mother introduced me to the spirituality of an Easter sunrise—particularly from a shoreline—when I was about ten. Our family had recently moved to Italy for my father’s international work. During spring vacation our family drove to Sorrento and camped in a tent. My mother woke me early and the two of us crawled out of our tent, leaving my dad and brother still snoring in their sleeping bags.

We found some rocks to sit on and quietly watched the world awaken as the sun rose. Sorrento does not face east, but it didn’t matter. The moment was magical to us both. Part of the magic for me was that my mother had shared something that was very meaningful to her without saying anything. I understood what it meant to her because I could see and feel her quiet joy.

My mother was raised Muslim in Iran. She neither embraced nor renounced Islam, nor did she convert to Christianity. She simply incorporated joyful traditions and spirituality from multiple faiths. Easter and Christmas were as important to her as Norooz (an Iranian holiday from ancient times, and not a Muslim one). What some people today would call cultural appropriation, to her was joyful living.

She was multicultural in a way that I have never seen in anyone else. She moved easily between cultures, adapting to the circumstances. She lived in multiple countries on several continents at a time when few did so, and she was drawn to all that was joyful.

My mother was raised in northwest Iran, and her first language was Turkish. Her parents—both Iranian—were well-educated in the 1920s and they worked with American Presbyterian missionaries in the region, helping to build and develop hospitals, schools, and experimental farms. My mother’s playmates in her early years were both Iranian and American.

Later, her family moved to another region of Iran and my mother learned Persian for the first time, around age eight. At first, she felt like a foreigner in her own land because she did not understand anything at her new school. But she adapted, and in high school she also learned English and French.

She earned a degree in education from the University of Tehran in the 1940s, worked for a couple of years as a teacher in Tehran, and in 1949 obtained a scholarship to attend a Teachers’ College in Missouri. Then she got another scholarship for a Master’s degree at the University of Nebraska, where she met my father, a Canadian who had grown up in a tiny Icelandic village along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

Their life together moved them from Lincoln, NE (where they met as foreign students) to Saskatoon, SK to Ottawa, ON to Madison, WI to Winnipeg, MB to Tehran, Iran and eventually to Rome, Italy, where I spent my formative years.

I do the work that I do—helping people foster more meaningful and effective interactions across differences—in the singular way that I do it because of what I learned from observing my mother. I learned not from what she said, but how she lived. She experienced the same childlike joy from roasting marshmallows over an open fire in Canada as she did from buying roasted chestnuts from street vendors in Italy, or roasted corn-on-the-cob in Iran. I am anchored by the way she experienced and shared simple joy, regardless of the setting.

I am uncomfortable with identity politics not because there is anything inherently wrong with it, but because it is insufficient to foster meaningful connections and understanding. It is a necessary first step, but more steps must follow. There is value in recognizing themes that run through the experiences of all women, or all African-Americans, or all coal-miners. But we also need to move beyond group identities to explore individual experiences if we want to connect and collaborate.

I have never fit into a category, nor have either of my parents. The only response I can give to questions like: “Where are you from?” or “Where are your parents from?” is: “Well, it’s complicated…”

I have observed over my lifetime how many people want to put me and my history into their frame of reference, without inquiring about my frame. It is natural to do so. We all take in new information and put it into contexts that are familiar to us. This is not where we err; our failing is in not recognizing that another step is required: namely, inquiry and exploration. “Tell me more about what your experiences mean to you.”

To connect and collaborate well, we must develop the habit and skill of pausing, reflecting on our interpretations, and inquiring more. We must constantly empty ourselves of our preconceived ideas and open ourselves to what we can learn from others. In the words of Mark Nepo:

“Deep listening is so obvious to begin and so elusive to maintain… It is to keep emptying and opening.

To listen is to give up all expectation and to give our attention, completely and freshly, to what is before us, not really knowing what we will hear, or what that will mean.

To listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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The 50-40-10 Guideline

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I created the 50-40-10 Guideline as a rule of thumb, based on experience and practice. Approximately 50% of communication takes place through body language, 40% through tone of voice, and 10% is expressed in the words themselves. While this rule of thumb is not rooted in scientific research, it is nevertheless a helpful guide for managing interactions effectively.
 
We often communicate through the written word—text and e-mails—in large part because it feels more efficient, and in the right contexts, it is. But this mode is also most prone to misunderstandings because we lack tonal and visual inputs. Emojis can only take us so far.
 
When we feel that something has gone awry, this is the moment to seek clarification through a phone call, a video call, or in person. If we don’t, we speculate about the motivation or reasoning behind someone’s message or silence. We often plan responses based on that speculation, and we may find ourselves in a mythical world inside our heads.
 
Face-to-face (F2F) is the fullest form of communication. We can witness a sigh, and see facial expressions that accompany a pause, for example. We can see whether the other person is grimacing in that pause, or giving thoughtful consideration to a response. We can clarify on the spot or probe further.

F2F is often impractical due to geographic distance, but sometimes we ascribe impracticality when we simply find it inconvenient; we don’t want to bother with a video-call or meeting. This is short-sighted because it leads us to weaken bonds rather than modify them for more effective collaboration. It leads us to operate with our input and interpretation only, rather than allowing new possibilities to emerge from the input of both parties. I sometimes wait a month or more to have a F2F conversation with a business colleague or friend when I need to clear the air.
 
Every mode of communication has its strengths and weaknesses. The key is to use all of them intentionally, knowing which form is most appropriate for a given circumstance. In the long run, this produces the best outcomes. Contact us to learn more.

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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Working Effectively with Anger — The Solution Might Surprise You

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Anger seems to be all the rage these days (pun intended!), with many people in full-throated celebration of it. Rage and disdain have become acceptable expressions of anger. But are they effective?
 
The words anger, rage, and outrage are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. Anger is an emotion stemming from other emotions, including anxiety, despair, or frustration. I feel angry, for example, when something does not go as I expect and have planned for. My expectations have not been met.

Rage and the “dis- words” (disregard, disrespect, disdain), on the other hand, are expressions of anger. They are choices we make, without fully considering all of the choices available to us.
 
When we express outrage, we are choosing to shame another, and shaming rarely produces the results we want. Similarly, rage is an expression of anger that fills the space but is hard to work with. Disregard and unresponsiveness are frequently an avoidance of our own discomfort with a given situation. All of these responses are laden with judgment, usually without full knowledge and understanding of the complete picture.
 
The most effective way to deal with anger is to “look under the hood.” Examine why you feel as you do; not everyone feels the same for a given circumstance, and we all connect the dots differently. Consider your assumptions and what you do not know. Explore choices thoughtfully. In other words, work with the complexity and make intentional decisions about how to respond, keeping channels of communication open. By doing so, you are much more likely to achieve your intended aim, and also more likely to benefit from unexpected opportunities.

Many who read this post will nod and say: “Yes, that makes sense.” But mindfully attending to our emotions and responses is hard to put into practice without guidance. Coaching helps us to develop healthy and fruitful practices of reflection that lead to the outcomes we want. I have benefited enormously from the guidance of coaches and counselors over the years. We are all a work in progress, and we all benefit from coaching. (See our coaching services here, and particularly the quote by Atul Gawande.)
 
Anger is a natural emotion. How we respond to that anger is a choice. We have far more agency than we realize to modify a situation and create positive outcomes. Contact us to learn more.

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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Populism: Will You Join, Resist, or Help Shape It?

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Much is being said these days about populism: the championing of the common man in opposition to the established elite. Some view its growth around the world with alarm, while others see it as a necessary check on entrenched politics.
 
Populism per se is not the problem. The real threat comes from what gets wrapped up with populism, such as authoritarianism, blind confidence in one’s point of view, a weak commitment to the truth, and/or minimal reflection and engagement with other ideas.
 
Populism can completely overturn a government structure, or re-shape it at the margins. It can lead to more equitable policies, or more reckless ones. What matters is how we work with it.
 
I invite you to help shape populism. Join a growing movement of ordinary people who are committed to building bridges of understanding through Better Angels, a non-profit organization committed to depolarizing America. I have followed this non-profit’s growth since its humble beginnings in late-2016, and I’m impressed enough to donate some of my time to moderating their workshops for free. This is a populist movement I am happy to join.
 
You can also make a difference by participating in one of our Engaging with Difference® workshops to learn a set of higher-level communication and leadership skills that transform interactions into creative and effective collaborations. These skills are broadly applicable to daily interactions, not just political discussions.

Whatever you choose to do, I hope you will engage with diverse viewpoints and reflect on them in new ways. This is an essential element of a healthy democracy.

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Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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New Year Commitments

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Happy New Year! I hope that 2019 is full of interesting and meaningful connections for us all.
 
As you commit to some new resolutions, may I suggest a simple one? Ask more questions this year. Ask questions of yourself and of others, with gentleness and openness. Observe how often our conversations are predominantly filled with statements. We take turns stating what we think and any questions we ask are for simple clarification. I invite you to go a little deeper; inquire and explore with heartfelt respect—including of yourself. Why do you, or others, feel so strongly about something?
 
Asking questions helps to create space between our reaction and our thoughtful response, and in that space lies a wealth of insights. How we connect with each other—and how we connect with ourselves—is the main determinant of what we bring forth in our lives.
 
May the year be good for you and full of sweet surprises!

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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The Spirit of the Season

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At this time of year (December), some people get anxious about the proper way to greet others. “Should I say Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas or what?”
 
The best way to make it a non-issue is to speak from the heart. It’s not about what you say but how you say it. The purpose of a greeting is to say: “I see you and want to give you my best wishes.” The purpose is to make a connection.
 
This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about awareness of the other and that the other person might celebrate something different (or the same thing differently) than we do.

When we say to a friend: “Hey, you must be so happy that your sports team won the game!” we are showing that we know what the other person cares about. So, too, with holiday greetings. When we know what another person celebrates (be it a holiday or a sports team), we honor that person by acknowledging it and greeting them appropriately. When we don’t know, a more generic greeting can convey the same good wishes. What matters is that we speak from the heart.
 
Greetings are a way to engage and connect. When you keep the focus there, the path forward is clear. At the root of it all, we are sharing joy.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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The Ripple Effect of our Efforts

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Who is undermining the society we so cherish? The far left? The far right? Trump? The media? The internet? George Soros? The Koch Brothers? The list is endless, and everyone reading this post has someone or some group in mind (including me).
 
We may not agree on who to blame for the current state of affairs, nor on what is the greatest threat we face. But perhaps we can agree on an essential step forward: we need to be talking with each other more.

Consider this: Research has shown that approximately 50% of communication takes place through body language, 40% through tone of voice, and 10% through words. This means that if we are trying to understand “the other” through what we read online, the field is wide open for misinterpretation.

Furthermore, many editorial or op-ed writers in reputable news sources such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times claim to understand the motivations and mindset of opposing views; they explain authoritatively exactly how twisted the thinking is on the other side. Because my views are in the middle and I spend a lot of time talking with people on both sides, I see how wrong many of their statements are. Sadly, these skewed views of “the other” spread like wildfire and shape our understanding of the world in which we live.

As a society, we are weakened by our diminished ability to talk meaningfully about our differences. This, in my view, is a significant threat. We give away our power and agency when we buy into the “otherizing” that is practiced daily in both public and private spheres, and by assuming we understand the other better than we do.
 
We need to talk to each other about what we care about, rather than about who said what to whom on TV or the internet. We need to stop discussing their views and motivations and instead talk about our own. We need to build (or re-build) relationships, face to face.

Every drop of effort will have a ripple effect, beyond what we see. A way forward rests with each and every one of us.

Who will you reach out to?

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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The Onus is on the Listener

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Many people think that good communication refers to how we speak. In fact, the quality of a conversation pivots on how we listen. Listening attentively is not enough. We also need to consider how we interpret what we hear.

When I say: “I believe in the value of assimilation,” how do you interpret that? In some circles, the reaction will be: “But of course!” In other circles, my statement might elicit a more horrified reaction. Why the difference?

Contrary to popular belief, the difference is not about politics and values. It’s about interpretation. If we do not pause to consider how we hear something and the context into which we put it, and if we do not ask for clarification regarding the context of the speaker, we perpetuate polarization.

When I was growing up (a long time ago!), there were only two designations for how people adapted to new countries and cultures: either they assimilated, or they did not. Since then, academics have developed more nuanced categories: assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalization. In this framework, assimilation now has a more negative connotation: it means discarding one’s original cultural identity to adopt a new one. The more socially acceptable word to use these days is integration: an individual maintains previous cultural beliefs and traditions and engages appropriately in the new culture.

I have assimilated and/or integrated into a wide range of new cultures and environments since the age of 6 (with varying degrees of success), as did both of my parents. Before you react to my use of the word assimilate, ask me what the word means to me. Ask me about my context.

To reduce polarization, start listening differently.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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A Trans-Atlantic Dialogue of Note

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Francesco Magnocavallo is the Digital Editorial Director of Hearst Magazines Italia, based in Milan, and awhile back he stumbled upon our website for People Beyond Politics.™ He and I began a conversation that resulted in an article he wrote and published in the Italian edition of Elle magazine. (Both the Italian and English versions are available in the link below.)
 
Obviously, I’m happy about the recognition for the work we are doing. But on another level, I’m really delighted to see how our dialogue expanded understanding in both of us. This is what happens when we are truly open to inquiry and dialogue: all parties gain new and valuable insights; it is not a one-way street.
 
What I found most interesting in Francesco’s article is the way he sees creativity: it is inextricably linked to openness and complexity (or openness to complexity). He writes that we become more creative when we take the time to understand complex narratives. He offers a thought-provoking perspective on plurality, empathy, and creativity, and his article is well worth reading. Click here for Francesco's article, in Italian or English.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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Engaging with Difference

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Seek the Truth

Seek the truth, speak the truth, and be open to hearing the truth. This is an essential pillar of democracy—and of relationships in general.

In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each man is touching a different part of the elephant, and each tries to extrapolate from what he experiences to explain the full truth of what is before them. The man touching the tusk says the elephant is like a spear; the one holding the tail says it’s like a rope; and the one touching the side affirms that it is like a wall. All of them insist that their point of view must drive the conclusion, but each reality is only a piece of a larger truth.

A commitment to the truth requires us to consider what we do not know, and to continually seek new information to gain an understanding of the whole. It is impossible to know the truth without engaging with a range of views in a meaningful, sustainable manner.

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Cultivate the Space Between Us

How we engage with others influences the degree to which we expand our understanding of the many facets that make up the whole truth. It doesn’t matter how far apart our views are from each other, and it is immaterial whether we engage in debate, discussion, or dialogue. What matters is the quality of the space we cultivate between us.

My best political conversations have been with people whose views are far apart from mine, but we engage in discussion in a way that makes space for the dignity of opposing views. We may express our strongly held opinions with passion and conviction, and challenge and debate each other, but we do not convey contempt (subtly or overtly) for other perspectives.

Conversely, some of my worst political conversations have been with people whose views are closer to mine in theory, but the discussion deteriorates when one or both of us speak about entire groups of people derisively (e.g., Republicans; Democrats; alt-right; socialist left; etc.). The underlying scorn weakens the interaction, even if it is directed at people outside the conversation.

In other words, disdain kills the discussion, not the gap in views.

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Resist the Siren Call of Silos

Engaging with other viewpoints takes effort, and sometimes it falls flat. Resist the urge to return to silos and echo chambers. Yes, being with our own tribe is more comfortable, but there is only one way to expand our understanding of the world in which we live: engage with different viewpoints. Read broadly. Find writers you like from a wide variety of publications, and not just newspapers; novels work, too. Talk with a range of people about views, experiences, hopes, and fears—yours and theirs. Have the courage to step outside of your comfort zone, over and over.

There is so much to talk about without even once touching on Trump or the left/right divide. Yes, both Trump and our divide dominate the news cycle, and people are either very happy or very unhappy about what they hear, but we are all more complex and nuanced than the binary divide.

Voting is binary; we are not. There is so much we can build upon.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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One Thing We Can All Agree On

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“I don’t recognize the country that I love.”

I have heard this statement many times, from people on the left and the right, and I certainly feel it myself. Granted, we all have different reasons for this sentiment, but it does lead one to ask: What are we going to do about it?

I see all kinds of responses. There is increased tribalism, where we fret and vent within our own circles. There is withdrawal from the news because it becomes too draining to follow. And there is resistance and protest, which did not start in the Trump presidency, but long before.

In the short term, all of these responses seem to make sense because they are soothing and/or energizing in some way. They give us a sense that we have control over our lives. But in the long term, they significantly weaken the bonds that make a society a cohesive, functioning unit because they separate us.

Here’s a radical thought:

How about engaging with each other with the empathy that we tend to reserve only for those who think as we do?

Take a risk. Reach out to someone who sees the world differently than you do and have a cup of coffee together. Ask what s/he is feeling and thinking, and why. Peel back the layers to find out what lies underneath; don’t assume you know. Inquire with open-ended questions. Let go of your desire to persuade, to opine, to be heard. In this moment, just inquire, listen, and keep inquiring with curiosity until you understand the other.

This is where our collective power lies. Engaging with difference® is how we can shape the world we live in to include each other. It is how we ensure that we continue to live in a country of laws and compassion. We cannot survive with just laws or just compassion; we need both. And we need each other.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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Why I Do What I Do

Some think that People Beyond Politics™ (PBP) is about politics. It’s not. It is about people and how we understand each other when we have different perspectives. Only when we know how to explore each other’s frame of reference and context can we discuss politics (or any topic) in a meaningful way.

Last week I posted a video on our Facebook page from a TEDx Talk given by Paula Stone Williams, a transgendered woman who shares her insights about living both as a man and a woman in our society. At first glance, her talk might appear to be unrelated to People Beyond Politics™ – but it is spot-on. The takeaways, as I see them, are not just the points she makes about the topic, but also the way her grace and humor draw us in and invite us to listen. It is a powerful example of engaging one’s audience effectively, even on a controversial subject.

I have spent a lifetime learning about the many dimensions of communicating across differences, and I have seen the positive impact of incorporating this learning – both on myself and on others. These leadership and communication skills have transformed my life: they have reduced friction and frustration, and created a multitude of new opportunities for connections, growth, and change. I am convinced that these skills are crucial to making teams and policies more coherent and effective. In short, they are an essential ingredient for making the world a better place. This is why I do what I do.

I hope you will consider subscribing to our newsletter and participating in this growing community of people who come from all walks of life. We are from across the political spectrum, but we share a desire to build bridges, expand understanding, and make a difference, each in our own way.

This is where I wrote this month's blog-post and newsletter. :-)

This is where I wrote this month's blog-post and newsletter. :-)

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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It Starts with Kindness

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I suspect that many will see the title here and think: “I’m a kind person; I don’t need to read more.” Wait; don’t go! Please read on. I am not talking about being kind when everything is humming along smoothly. I’m talking about the pivotal importance of being kind even when we feel angry or offended, and how to do it.

Kindness lubricates the interlocking pieces of a strong democracy or cohesive working group. Many other elements are crucial, too, but without kindness, persistent friction corrodes the mechanisms and reduces the effectiveness of the overall system. Kindness is an essential element for creating an environment in which everyone can thrive.

Equally important, we cannot understand those with whom we disagree without kindness, because understanding requires us to be open-minded and open-hearted. We hear (and are heard) when there is a generosity of spirit, even as we challenge certain ideas.

Many will be quick to say: "But I cannot be kind to someone who says something reprehensible! That would condone such behavior." Of course, there are instances when we may choose not to engage because we find a statement or action to be so egregious that it does not deserve recognition. But before we condemn, are we sure we have understood that person correctly? Does the other person agree that we have understood correctly?

There is an art to resisting, disagreeing, or standing firm while being kind, and it takes practice to develop. This is not about turning the other cheek; it is about staying in alignment with our own moral compass and leading from within, rather than living our lives in reaction to others.

Certainly, it is challenging to be our best selves in every circumstance, but we get better the more we do it. Personal Leadership (PL) is a set of defined practices that helps develop these skills. Most importantly, when it is in play it shifts the dynamic of the interaction and changes what we put out into the world.

The more we practice kindness in our everyday lives, the more easily it will come forth in times of stress or disagreement. When we think about kindness received, it puts us in a positive frame of mind. When we share affirmative stories, we inspire each other. This is not Pollyanna speaking; it actually works.

Right now we spend a lot of time sharing outrage, dismay, and grievances. We form tribal alliances based on what we agree is wrong—in Washington, in classrooms, in our communities. Let's rebalance a bit, and also share stories of unexpected kindness.

We can shift the energy of our environments, one interaction at a time, and I invite you to help make that happen.

Would you be willing to briefly share your story of receiving an unexpected kindness in the Comments section below? It will inspire others, and it deserves to be shared. And it would make my day. Thank you!  :-)

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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A Different Way of Listening

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When we listen, we tend to listen for something—something to respond to. We listen for an idea we like or dislike, or an experience we can relate to. We listen to provide support and affirmation. We listen for the hook that either engages us and draws us in, or repels us and pushes us back. We listen ready to react.

This kind of listening makes sense in a formal debate, in which two sides are arguing opposing points and listening for weaknesses and opportunities in the statements of the other side. But such an approach constrains real dialogue, where the intent is to create connection and expand understanding.

We naturally process what we hear through our own framing and experiences. We hear what is important to us and ignore that which does not resonate. It is like being given a picture and cropping out what is irrelevant—to us. But it might be essential to the speaker.

A perfect example is when Mary Kissel of the Wall Street Journal interviewed Robert Murray of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a conservative think-tank based in Alberta, shortly after Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada in October 2015. She kept framing her questions in terms of taxes even though he repeatedly replied that this election was more about values. They were like ships passing in the night—purportedly in the same conversation, but actually not. Her questions were entirely through her frame of reference, which yielded little of value. If she had engaged in more open inquiry (“What do you mean?”) it would have offered greater insights.

Other examples are from our everyday lives, when talking with friends or colleagues. We quickly exclaim: “I know just what you mean!” when in reality we may not fully understand. Or we try to offer comfort for emotional distress by putting it in a different context (“It’s not really that bad; look at it this way…”). Instead, we can simply say: “You are sad about “x” situation; what does that mean for you?”

Jesper Juul, a Danish child-development specialist, makes this same point in reference to children’s drawings. When we say to a child: “What a beautiful/cool picture you have drawn!” we are unconsciously judging both the picture and the child’s capabilities. Instead, Juul suggests that we acknowledge the picture and ask neutral questions: “I see you have drawn a picture. Tell me about it; what is it about?” Not only is this what every child needs to hear; it is what every one of us needs to hear. We want someone to simply hold the space so we can express ourselves from the context we inhabit.

Transformative listening means having an awareness of the frame of reference we bring to the table, and the humility to set it aside temporarily. It means cultivating openness and inquiry, sitting with ambiguity, and letting clarity come slowly. While this approach may not be relevant to every situation, it is applicable to many. It transforms the meaning and trajectory of an interaction and gives rise to new understanding.

I often find it challenging to listen this way because I love to jump in with my thoughts and perspective, but it gets easier with practice. I keep at it because it gives me more interesting conversations. Try it and let me know what you think.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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The Quest for Purity

Many journalists have written about outrage being the emotion du jour – or as Hugh Hewitt puts it, our current addiction. A few months ago, he wrote:

“…like the human pulse, it is nowadays a sign of life. Not to be outraged is to be almost disqualified in the eyes of many from being a participant in politics, even though the perpetually outraged fall across the political spectrum. Not only can they not imagine anyone not being outraged, they also can’t imagine any kind of outrage save their own.”

There are certainly plenty of reasons to be outraged. But being in a constant state of elevated anger, from one issue to the next, is ultimately self-defeating. It drives us into binary thinking not only about issues, but about people. (You are with us or against us.) And once in that space, we lose our capacity to distinguish nuance, texture, and difference; we shrink the gray zone, which is where we need to be operating; and most importantly, we squander the opportunity to gather new insights, expand our understanding, and build a viable, inclusive path forward.

Outrage can be valuable, when used judiciously. But when it is always turned on, it seems to bring forth a disquieting quest for purity. There is a growing intolerance of anyone whose thoughts, actions, and statements do not meet our criteria, as evaluated through our own lens. We don’t make room for the possibility that we may have misinterpreted someone, or not fully understood the multi-layered and complex context from which that person was speaking.

On a recent radio program, the left-leaning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described an experience of being misinterpreted by those within her own political tribe, and being taken down publicly. She said: “The Left eat their own…” and then commented further on the intolerance of perceived variances in thinking.

Two weeks later, on a different radio program titled “Words You Can’t Say,” I heard the same statement made on the Right, by Dodie Horton, a Republican state senator. She said: “I was amazed to find that Republicans eat their own.”

In both cases, it had to do with language and a misinterpretation of a particular choice of words. In both cases, these people were hounded and intimidated for an interpretation that was imposed on them.

There is a disturbing blindness to this quest for purity. When we insist on processing what we hear through our own frame of reference, without considering and exploring the frame of the other, we miss complexity, nuance, and possibilities for creative solutions. In our well-meaning desire to elevate and improve our society, we inadvertently kill off that which will help it grow.

So, the next time someone says something that offends you, or that you find discordant in some way, ask an open-ended question before making a statement. It is harder to do than you think, because we are so used to responding with a statement (and often, a judgment).

Until and unless we develop the skill to explore someone else’s context in all its layers of complexity, we will miss one opportunity after another to broaden our understanding of the world we live in, and to expand our capacity to effect positive change for all.

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Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.

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