The Gift of Intergenerational Dialogue (Part 6)

Think about the divisions facing our country right now. We can’t agree on the best way to approach education, healthcare, crime, and so many other important topics. We can (mostly) agree that our current system is broken, but there’s no consensus on the best path to improvement. I don’t want to suggest that there is any one magical solution to the problems facing our society, but I do think that we can do much, much better.

[This is the 6th and final post in a series on the Parent/Child Relationship.
Find previous posts here: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5.]

In my opinion, the number one thing standing in the way of progress is this: We don’t know how to listen to one another. So what? Well, if we can’t listen to one another, then we can’t learn from one another, and we can’t work together to create something that draws from our collective wisdom. Consider how much knowledge and experience exists in our country. Consider what might be possible if we could take advantage of the diversity of experiences and perspectives!

Why am I talking about societal change in a post about the parent/child relationship? Because I believe that this relationship holds the greatest untapped potential for dialogue in our society. There tend to be vast belief differences between generations, which means we can learn a lot from our parents and vice versa. And significantly, this is a relationship that most people have access to, either on the parent or the child side of the equation (or both). You don’t need to go make a new friend to enlarge your perspective, you can simply start to actually listen to what your parents (or children) have to say, with the genuine desire to understand their view. Imagine the impact this could have on you personally, your family as a whole, and society at large if the younger generations could benefit from the wisdom of our elders, and if the older generations could benefit from the fresh perspectives of their children.

Regardless of larger societal impact, there is no doubt that learning and practicing the skill of dialogue with your parents will greatly deepen and strengthen that relationship. So if you aren’t motivated to do it for any other reason, do it for yourself. The superficial chit-chat that you are accustomed to having with your parents will pale in comparison to the richness and depth of conversation that is possible within the posture of dialogue.

“Dialogue” refers to a conversation where the goal is to understand the perspective of the other and to clearly express your own perspective.

But You Don’t Know My Parents

Some of you may be filled with skepticism at this point. Learn from my parents? Are you kidding me?? Their views are so narrow-minded! I get it. Your concerns are valid. But have you ever taken the time to wonder why your parents hold the views they do? And before you rattle off your knee-jerk response (“Because that’s what _____ news network tells them to believe!”), sit with the question for a moment. All of us have had unique life experiences that have led us to our beliefs. So while it’s true that you may have thought more about a particular topic, especially if it’s something you’re passionate about, that doesn’t automatically invalidate your parents’ perspective. If you can start from the assumption that your parents are rational human beings who have come by their views honestly, you can approach them with curiosity instead of judgment. Wow, we see this really differently! I wonder why that is? What experiences have you had that inform your perspective? How have my experiences led me somewhere different? Now that’s a very different kind of conversation – one that can lead to new insights, genuine empathy, and shared understanding.

If this still sounds crazy and unrealistic, let me testify that I have begun to experience this kind of conversation with my parents and it is, in fact, possible! The last time I was visiting my parents, we ended up getting into a 3-hour conversation that covered just about every political topic you can imagine. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sweating a little bit, but the conversation did not end in shouting and crying, as they often have in the past. On the contrary, I was able to ask questions and listen, and I came away from the conversation with new learning! Instead of our different views serving as a wedge between us, our dialogue brought us closer together. I felt more connected with my parents afterward, and felt more empathy in general toward their viewpoints.

I’m not suggesting that dialogue is easy – it is very challenging, which is why it comes at the END of the parent/child relationship curriculum. But I am suggesting that it is both possible and extremely worthwhile. Continue reading to learn more about what dialogue is and how it works.

Debate vs. Dialogue

Many of us default to a posture of DEBATE when we disagree with someone. Sometimes we do this because we believe in our view so fervently that we want to share it with those we love. Helping people (especially white people) “wake up” to the realities of racial inequality in our country is an extremely important part of my personal mission, so it can be wildly frustrating for me to engage with people who don’t share my view. It’s not wrong for me to want them to see what I see, but the truth is, merely shouting louder and not trying to first understand their perspective is probably the very worst way to achieve my end goal. This is because the most natural response to feeling attacked is to double down on protecting your own view. So by engaging the other person from a posture of debate, I am essentially ensuring that they will walk away from the conversation more convinced of their view than when we started.

If debate is so ineffective, why do we return to it again and again? It’s important to recognize that, not only does debate trigger defensiveness in the other person, but it often arises from defensiveness in ourselves. When we feel unsure or threatened in our view, one way to create a false sense of confidence is to try to convince the other person of our position. In reality, we may be trying to convince ourselves as much as anyone. As soon as you realize you are feeling defensive, ask yourself, Why am I feeling this way?  What do I feel is under attack?  What meaning am I making?  Expect defensiveness to be at play in your relationship with your parents more than any other relationship, especially if the conversation is around a topic you deeply care about.

Even if we are genuinely confident in our views, there are several unhelpful beliefs that can lead us to engage in debate rather than dialogue. For example, if I was raised in a family that placed a high value on agreement and discouraged dissenting viewpoints, it may not occur to me that it’s “ok” to see things differently. In this self-created reality where everyone needs to agree, I would much rather convince you to come to my side than have to give up my view and come to your side.

Similarly, many of us have been trained to see the world through the binary categories of “right/wrong” or “good/bad.” What is the impact of this? If I believe that I am right, then any other view will be categorized as “wrong” by default. Sometimes it is helpful to think about things this way, but often it is not. This is particularly true when you are trying to understand someone else’s perspective. As long as you are sorting everything you hear into the categories of “right” and “wrong,” you are blocking yourself from learning something new. I am not suggesting that you check your critical thinking skills at the door; I am suggesting that there are more helpful ways to listen with discernment than immediately judging everything as “right” or “wrong.” Instead, ask yourself, If this were true, what would the impact be? Is it possible that my current view is the result of limited or inaccurate information? Get curious and wonder about new ideas, holding them with open hands, asking if there’s something to be learned.

So what’s the alternative to the posture of debate? The alternative is a posture of DIALOGUE, where the goal is to understand the perspective of the other and to clearly express your own perspective. The posture of dialogue is characterized by humility and a desire to learn from those who are different. From this stance, the way we “show up” during the conversation is just as important as the ideas exchanged.

When we earnestly listen to our parents, we show them that we see their value. We acknowledge their humanity and show them that their perspective has worth. From this posture, we open ourselves up to glean wisdom from anyone – even those we have previously written off as old-fashioned or simple-minded.

Both dialogue and debate are characterized by a number of underlying assumptions:

*I have been talking about “Debate” as if it is the only alternative to Dialogue, which is of course not the case. It should be noted that the same mindsets listed in the left column above could equally lead someone to Distance. Distancing might look like avoiding topics that you disagree on, but it might also involve pretending to agree with the other person to maintain the illusion of peace and avoid an argument. But even though the outward patterns look drastically different, it’s important to see that they both stem from the same beliefs about the importance of agreement and “right/wrong” thinking.

The Goals of Dialogue: To Understand and Be Understood

Let’s take some time to dig a little deeper into how we can go about engaging life from a posture of dialogue rather than a posture of debate. What does this kind of conversation actually look like? 

The goals of dialogue are 1) to understand and 2) to be understood. The first goal is an attempt to understand the perspective of the other through listening. The second goal is an attempt to express your perspective as clearly as possible.

1. To understand by listening:

The primary task of dialogue is to listen in a fundamentally different way. Often, instead of listening to our parents (or whomever), we are thinking about what we are going to say next. Or if we do actually pay attention to what is being said, it is with the goal of collecting evidence to make our case. We look for contradictions in what they’re saying or holes in their argument, patiently gathering ammunition for a counterattack. But what if listening had a purpose beyond bolstering our position? What if the goal wasn’t to tear down the other person, but to connect more deeply? What if we we listened in order to understand and enter into someone else’s experience? What would this kind of listening look like?

In dialogue, we listen in order to deeply understand and enter into the experience of the other person.

This kind of “deep listening” is made possible by adopting a mindset, and incorporating two practices into your conversations. First, the mindset: For dialogue to be successful, I need to sincerely want to see what you see. This requires a genuine desire for connection that cannot be faked. When I ask you about the life experiences that have led you to your view, I have to want to hear what you have to say. I need to start with the assumption that if I had access to the same information and experiences that you have, I would empathize with your view. This can then serve as a metric: If I don’t empathize with your view, I have not learned enough about your experiences. Note that “empathize” does not mean “agree with”; it simply means being able to understand how you arrived at your perspective, and not judging you for it. It means being able to feel some kind of positive regard toward you as a fellow human being, even if our perspectives are worlds apart.

If I don’t empathize with your view, I have not learned enough about your experiences.

There are two simple practices that will help us enter into the other person’s experience and move toward empathy. The first practice is to ask lots of questions. How did you come to that view? What are some of the experiences that shape your perspective? How did it feel when ____ happened? What goes through your head when people say _______? Let curiosity be your guide. If they are filled with anger or hatred, wonder about that. Where is the wound? Did someone hurt them? Are they afraid of losing something? Don’t try to diagnose them, but ask open-ended questions that let them be in charge of their narrative. What interactions have you had with _____ group of people? What stories from the news or from your life come to mind when you think about this issue? What feels most important (or scary, or hopeful) about this topic? Why? And on and on, each answer leading to the next question. If they contradict themselves, let it be. Emotions are complicated, and we are able to feel many different things simultaneously. You are much more likely to get to understanding and empathy if you allow everything into the space, rather than policing aspects of their experience that don’t fit your expectations.

The second practice is active reflection. As your parents answer your questions, periodically say back to them what you are hearing. This doesn’t have to be awkward or overly formal, e.g. “What I hear you saying is…” Instead, it can be a natural and nurturing part of the conversation, e.g. “Wow! It sounds like that was a really painful experience. I can’t imagine what that was like when ______.” Reflecting back serves a couple of important functions. First, it allows us to confirm that we actually understood what was intended, or to be corrected if we misunderstood. Second, it can help the other person to clarify their view. Sometimes we don’t realize what we are communicating until someone reflects it back to us, and only then do we realize that our words don’t match what we’re feeling inside. If we feel safe to process in a messy, imperfect way, it becomes possible to grow beyond our old interpretation of events and possibly gain access to a new perspective. Finally, active reflection is a way to express empathy. When we hear someone else speak our words with kindness and compassion, we feel seen and loved.

Here is an example of active reflection serving all three purposes:

Daughter: It sounds like when you were a kid and had to move because of your dad’s new job, that created a lot of anger in you towards your parents. Is that right?

Mom: Well no, not exactly. I think I was angry at myself for not being able to express how I felt. Towards them I felt…hmmm…I felt like I didn’t matter, like my feelings didn’t factor into their decision.

Daughter: Ok, so it was more a feeling of insignificance. 

Mom: Yes, exactly!

Daughter: Wow, that must have been really tough.

Mom: Yeah, it was.

Notice that it takes several rounds of feedback is a much slower process, but also notice what is gained – new understanding and a deeper sense of connection between mother and daughter. If the daughter hadn’t reflected back, she might just blaze on ahead assuming that her mom was angry and start asking questions that flow from that misunderstanding. This could frustrate the mom, leading her to grow defensive. In a matter of seconds, they could fall back into old patterns of argument and accusation, and miss an opportunity to strengthen their relationship. But by utilizing the mindset and practices of dialogue, the daughter is able to enter into her mother’s experience and both of their perspectives are enlarged in the process.

2. To be understood by sharing your perspective

Once your parent indicates that s/he feels understood by you, then it is your turn to share your perspective. You might say something like, “Thank you for trusting me with your perspective. Would it be alright if I share mine?” Obviously you have no control over how well they listen to you; you are only responsible for the way you show up. The goal is to be both defined and humble as you share. You are not trying to offer a superior argument and bring them around to your point of view. Nor are you trying to look good and “win” the conversation. Instead, you are simply laying out what you think, believe, and feel. These things are offered as your perspective, rather than the only perspective. This gives your parent the opportunity to enter into your experience and listen to you the way you listened to them, though they may not choose to take that opportunity. 

Humbly sharing your perspective with someone who holds a different view while not knowing how they will respond can be scary. In doing so, you are placing yourself in a very vulnerable position. The ability to see your own anxiety and manage your autopilot responses in the midst of the conversation is essential. Go in with the expectation that you will make messes, and that you can clean them up. This will help relieve the pressure that you need to magically be a different person with your parents immediately. You will almost certainly not be able to calmly dialogue with your parents in the beginning. Expect to need lots of practice, and be gracious with yourself (and with them) in the process.

An Invitation

If you are inspired by the possibility of learning to dialogue with your parents, or by any of the other topics in this blog series, I want to invite you to join our October/November coaching cohort that focuses on improving the parent/child relationship. If the thought of working on this relationship scares you, you are not alone! But the best things in life are often hiding behind our fears. Just imagine, if you could heal and strengthen that relationship, what else might be possible? How would it grow your confidence in other areas of life? How might it decrease your anxiety and increase your joy?

This group provides the perfect combination of structure and freedom. You will be given relevant content and assignments at each step of the way, but you are always in charge of how you take action. There is no pressure to take a step you’re not ready for. Wherever you are, you will be supported and affirmed. And of course, you get the benefit of swapping stories with fellow travelers on the journey, as well as receiving coaching along the way.

If you are interested in learning more about this experience, find details here or email me at deborah@bodyoakcliff.net.


Reflection Questions

  1. What’s one thing your parents know more about than you do? What are some things you know that you wish you could share with them?
  2. When is it hardest to listen deeply to your parents? When is it easiest? Why?
  3. If you were able to grow into a posture of dialogue with your parents, how would that change your relationship? What other benefits might result?

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