Making Space at the Table

In a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, the suggestion that we "make more room at the table" continually comes to the surface as one way of addressing issues, figuring out how to move forward, and finding common ground. Making more room at the table means creating space for people who aren't already part of the conversation. There are a few ways this can happen. Making more room at the table could mean buying a bigger table. While that's an okay approach to making more room at the table, it takes effort. You have to find a new table you like, get rid of the existing table, re-configure the seating arrangement, buy more table settings.  By the time you do all that, people aren't even hungry anymore...they've found somewhere else to eat. Luckily, there is another way to make more room at the table....everybody scooting in, making themselves a bit smaller, so there's room at the table you already have. When you add somebody to the table in this way, all the attention is focussed on them- people make sure they have silverware, pass the food, explicitly welcome them. Making room at the table is not just about creating space, it's also about making yourself a bit smaller so that the needs, opinions, and experiences of those you are asking to join you can be elevated.

So how can we make ourselves smaller? Make space at the metaphorical table? 


Here are a few ideas: 

  • De-center yourself. Sometimes making space at the table means intentionally stepping away from the center of the circle. In stepping away from the center, you are able to widen the circle and shift the focus. Move from your favorite seat. Offer your seat to somebody else. Take the corner seat that nobody wants. It's so easy to navigate the world as the star of our own show instead of playing the supporting role. Even in movies and books, the main character needs to be sidelined at times so that another character has the space they need to work out an issue, to develop. 
  • Intentional Silence & Deep Listening. Life Coach Heather Plett offers this: “Intentional silence is one of the most important principles of holding space. To hold space for other people (and for ourselves) we have to know when to speak and when to remain silent. When our egos get in the way, we want to offer advice, improve on someone’s story, control the outcome, or at least let people know how smart we are. All of those things are detrimental to the process of holding space. They draw attention away from the person you’re holding space for and draw it toward yourself.” Sometimes the best thing we can do to make space at the table is be quiet and honor the voices that need to be elevated. Being heard is a way of being loved and truly listening is a way loving well. We don't always have to be the savior, the expert, the champion. When we listen without worrying about what we are going to respond with, we are able to process things more carefully and see the humanity in others, the things that connect us. 
  • Make a relational covenant. Perhaps you need to make a promise to yourself to recognize that we can be bound by the way treat each other more than by shared beliefs. I am uniquely situated given my evangelical upbringing and my now more progressive beliefs. I have people in my life who are deeply conservative and those who are deeply liberal. At the end of the day, I can choose to always search for the humanity in others and value our commonalities more than I seek to change their belief system. That doesn't mean I am silent about my beliefs, and it doesn't mean we have to be best friends, it just means I try to honor the humanity in others, value the many wonderful things about them, and recognize when we need to take a step back from the debate and reconnect as humans.  

How are you making space at the table?

How can you make yourself smaller so that there is space for others?

How can you practice these values in your life? 

The Power of Words: Guidelines for Communication in a Digital Age

Honest communication has somehow simultaneously become the rarest and most commonplace form of human interaction. The rise of technology across my lifetime has shifted how we interact in profound ways. We suddenly have 24-hour access to pretty much anyone. We can interact with people we've never met IRL (in real life) and we are "talking" about things with casual acquaintances that just 20 years ago we wouldn't have. In an era before the internet and cell phones, saying hard, vulnerable, true things meant looking somebody in the eye and with that lump in your throat conjuring all of the courage you had to speak your truth. You could not "block" their response. You could not close your computer. You could not walk away for a few hours while you formulated the perfect response. There was time for follow-up. They could see your body language and expression. They could hear the tone in your voice. It was an art and it was raw. Because of the nuance and emotion involved in this process, I think a lot of things went unsaid. We didn't talk about religion or politics or anything else deeply personal with people we weren't super close to because it wasn't worth the risk of potential rejection. We also weren't able to communicate across the same expanse of time or space as we are now. If you came to my house for dinner before the internet we maybe had a couple of hours to interact, most of which probably would have been directly related to the meal we were eating, and then I might not see you again to have a vulnerable discussion for quite some time. Now, if I want to tell you something, I can do it anytime of the day from anywhere through about 25 different apps. These additional opportunities to interact have allowed us to talk about things with people and share things about ourself that we never would have before. These days anyone with an internet connection has a platform and that has deeply shifted relationships, at least it has for me. Once you see who somebody is on the internet it is impossible to unsee it. We are in uncharted territory when it comes to communication and I think we should hit pause every now and again to assess how we might be coming across. 

Here are a few of the guidelines I try to use in my online communication:

Don't say anything on-line that you wouldn't say in person. If you are saying something on-line that you would not say in person because it is too judgmental, too harsh, too mean, too outrageous, too whatever...then don't say it on-line. Even though there is an implied distance and an odd sense of courage when you are behind a computer screen, remember that these are still human interactions. There is another human reading what you are putting out into the world. 

Don't say anything on-line that should be said in person. There are some things that are better said in real life- I'm looking at you very public and very awkward conflicts between people who know each other IRL (some of which I've totally been guilty of engaging in). It's okay to feel big feelings. It's totally okay to be really angry at somebody. It is not okay to belittle another person online or engage in a public conflict just because you are upset. Go talk to them...or never talk to them again...just don't make it everyone else's business. I think apologies also often fall into this category. A sincere apology should be said in person when possible. 

Don't say anything when your emotions are running too wild. This is another one I'm guilty of. There are plenty of trolls out there and plenty of things to get upset about on-line. If something gets you super fired up, you don't have to respond immediately. Walk away for a while. When you come back you will be able to respond a lot more tactfully and be way more effective at getting your point across. I love this section from this article about clear communication in the midst of big emotion..

"...I needed to be more discerning between critical thoughts with some constructive intention and critical thoughts that came from my ego. The critical thoughts with a constructive intention served a valid purpose, whether it was to help me maintain my boundaries, communicate my needs, or honor my values. The critical thoughts that came from my ego usually had to do with fear, wanting to make someone else wrong to feel superior, or even projecting onto someone else the character traits I wished I didn’t have. The first type of critical thought is crucial, since it’s a prerequisite to taking care of ourselves. And sometimes, it may also pertain to taking care of people we love, by speaking up when we see someone mistreating them. So how do we recognize and avoid passive-aggressive behavior?...accept that you have the right to be angry...foster self-awareness about what you need or want to express...and have the courage to be clear..."

Be willing to apologize. We all make mistakes. We all say things we shouldn't have. We all miscommunicate. Just own it and learn from it. Be big enough to say you are sorry and that you will do better. See point above about apologies.           

When it comes to content you disagree with, sit with the discomfort for a while before you respond. This is sort of related to the point about checking your emotions, but often when I come across something on-line that I disagree with, my first instinct is to start typing all the reasons it is wrong. I've found it far more valuable instead of immediately responding sometimes, to sit with my discomfort. Why does this thing make me angry? Why do I disagree with it? What values or knowledge of mine does it contradict? Could I be wrong? Could this person have knowledge or experience that I don't? Could they be speaking from a place of ignorance rather than ill-intent? Could I be reading into it? What is the benefit of me engaging with the post? If the answer is only that I will prove them wrong and gain a sense of self-righteousness, then I have no business engaging. 

PS- I fail at following my own guidelines more often than I'd like to admit, but I promise I'm trying guys. 

What are some of the things you try to be mindful of in your on-line communications?

Hit me up- I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

This post was also published at A Plus. 


Productive Discussion in the Midst of the Madness

In the midst of our current political climate and the deep divide that seems to be driving our interactions recently, there is a component of human interaction that I find myself desperately longing for- intelligent, calm, considerate discussion. These days it feels like most people are just stating their opinions loudly and aggressively at each other rather than keeping an open mind and coming to the table seeking to truly understand. It’s tough to do, especially when the issues at hand are emotional and personal and have real lived consequences in people's lives. But, as much as I wish that loudly stating my opinion the same way over and over again could change somebody’s mind about an issue, that’s just not how it works. I believe change happens in the context of relationship, and productive conversation happens when both parties are willing to come to the table as active listeners with open minds and hearts, working together to seek truth. Despite any level of disagreement I may have with a significant portion of our nation, I believe that the people engaged in the current political rhetoric are, for the most part, well-intentioned and believe that what they are fighting for is good and is the truth. As Leslie Knope so eloquently says in the very first episode of NBC’s Parks & Recreation, ‘What I hear when I’m being yelled at are people caring loudly at me”. The thing I think we so often get tripped up on is keeping an open mind. To be honest, I’ve been as guilty as the next person- sorry y’all. I get so tired of saying the same thing over and over again, only to have it fall on what seems like deaf and angry ears. It feels like I am banging my head against a brick wall and after you do that enough, the only thing you can really do is be loud and aggressive and close-minded. It's so easy to let these interactions start to run wild. 

Luckily, I live with a man who challenges my stubbornness frequently and pushes me to keep an open mind and be a lot kinder to the people I encounter. My husband is one of the most thoughtful people you could ever hope to meet. I don’t mean thoughtful in the “he brings me flowers” for no particular reason sort of way. I mean thoughtful in the sense that he rarely rushes to judgement. Before coming to a firm conclusion about anything, he thoroughly and thoughtfully considers all sides, carefully weighing the good and the bad of each, listening to how people think/feel/experience the issue. Even once he has drawn a conclusion and feels deeply about something, he remains open. It’s a skill I’m not sure he understands the value of, especially in a culture filled with people who know that they are right. A few years ago he started saying this phrase and it has become sort of a mantra for us- “hold everything in tension”. Basically what that means is every belief and idea should be held loosely enough that it’s malleable by new experiences, truths, and ideas. Even the things we know as absolute today can shift if new evidence comes our way. Sure, there are beliefs we will carry with us for a lifetime, and that’s fine, but there are others that as we grow and experience life and learn that we may need to shift or throw out altogether and I think we have to be open to that. If we could keep this concept in mind when approaching a tough conversation, I think we'd spend more time in productive discussion and less time in heated disagreement.  

Next time you come to a tough discussion or disagreement, can I encourage you to do a few things in an effort to stay open minded and keep the interaction moving forward productively? 

  1. Do your best to check your emotion at the door. This is hard, but when we are in a state of heightened emotion, our brains struggle to think logically. We generally aren't great listeners or communicators when we are fired up.  

  2. Be an active listener. Even if what the person is saying is completely bat shit crazy, hear them out because when it's your turn to speak, you want them the hear you out. Most importantly, listen to understand, to empathize, don't just listen to formulate your counter-point. 

  3. If disagreeing, be critical of the belief, not the person. Nothing is more alienating than being insulted or having your character questioned. Too often we begin to demonize the person rather than their idea- we call people racists instead of calmly saying "what you just said is racist and here's why". Once we've questioned their character, it's unlikely we are going to move forward with a calm, engaging, thoughtful discussion. Sure, some people are terrible humans...but if we are trying to convince them of something, telling them how terrible they are isn't going to help. 

  4. Consider that you might be wrong or at least a little misguided. Listen, I often think I am absolutely right but sometimes I'm just not. There is no way for me to have all of the facts about every complex issue, especially if it's something I haven't experienced personally. It's just not possible. Part of engaging in a productive discussion is taking the information you've been given and carefully considering how it challenges/reconciles/impacts your own beliefs. You still may not change your mind, but you cannot lose by considering alternatives to your own thoughts and beliefs- only growth happens in that space. 

  5. If your point isn't getting across, don't just say the same thing louder and more aggressively. Try a different approach. There is more than one way to express anything, maybe you just haven't found a way to communicate the information in a format the other person can receive. 

  6. Know when you need to take a step back. If you are getting emotionally exhausted or too heated, it's okay to say "Hey, I really value this discussion and I want to continue it, but I need a breather to think about a few things. Can we pick it back up later?" Not everything has to be resolved in the midst of a complex conversation. Time and space can work wonders for everyone. 

  7. Know when to fold. Sometimes you just won't find the middle ground and you'll have to part ways without much of a resolution. That's okay. Maybe you'll never find common ground, or maybe you planted a seed that will lead to that person eventually shifting their thinking. It takes time and hard work to shift our views on things, especially when they are deeply engrained. You may never get to see the fruits of your tough conversation but that doesn't mean it was pointless. 

  8. Take care of yourself. The cultural and political climate we are in can be exhausting. Productive conversations can be exhausting. Give yourself time and space to fill your tank and check out, even if it's just for a few minutes. 

Here's to hoping for some meaningful, calm, and productive discussions. I believe it's possible and I believe it's worth the effort- for ourselves, for others, and for our nation. We can only move forward together if we work together. So, let's resist the urge to demonize or silence those who believe differently than we do. Resist the pull to turn a discussion into a heated disagreement. Resist the comfort of staying so deeply rooted in your own beliefs that you are incapable of growth. Resist the belief that it's too hard to find common ground.  Resist the urge to run from the hard work of productive dialogue. Dig deep. It will be worth it. I'm wholly convinced our future may rely on it.  

Artwork courtesy of Dustin Cowley (@cdcowley on Instagram)

Artwork courtesy of Dustin Cowley (@cdcowley on Instagram)