Acquired Spontaneity

Thoughts and practices for personal and social transformation

Holidays, Families, and Fairness

Does standing up for empathy or fairness work better at family arguments?

One “secret” about me that is quite well known to those who know me is that I actually know very little about mainstream media - television, most magazines, celebrities, and the like. So it would hopefully come as not too much of a shock to my readers that until today I didn’t know of the existence of Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, one of the better known advice columnists on the web. I became introduced when Dave Belden, who offers all manner of support with my creative projects (if you love the pictures on this blog, he’s the one who selects them, for example), sent me an exchange from her column and urged me to write a post about it.

Holiday Family Dinners

The exchange, which I copy below in its entirety (excerpted from this week’s Dear Prudence column), relates to the perennial challenge of political differences during holiday family dinners:

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Q. Maybe a Not-So-Happy Thanksgiving?: I am recently married, and will be spending Thanksgiving with my new in-laws. They are a very, ultra conservative group and dislike our president. I, however, voted for him, and have tried to stay away from the political banter. My sister-in-law recently sent my husband a message asking if I was a "closet" Obama supporter. Quite honestly, it's none of her business, but I took it upon myself to respond to her directly instead of through my husband. I know she has told his family that I support Obama, and I know it will be an issue at Thanksgiving (we live four hours away from them). Luckily, my husband is amazingly supportive and has stated that he will stand by me no matter what. I'm just not sure how to handle his family. Thank you, I don't want a fight.

A: The answer to are you a "closet" Obama supporter is no, because you are a proud and open Obama supporter. You are also right that your political views are none of their business, unless they want to make it so. You and your husband need to plan this out before the assault on mashed potato hill. If you start being goaded you can say, "I know it's painful when your candidate loses, so let's talk about more pleasant things." Or, "I'm happy to discuss the issues, but probably everyone's digestion will be better if we don't." Ignore the random Obama put-downs—during them you can recite to yourself, "Yeah, and that's 332 electoral college votes for my guy." If it becomes intolerable your husband should be prepared to interject that it's time the subject got changed, and then ask what teams people think are going to the Super Bowl.

I’ve been asked questions similar to the above dozens of times. So much so, that I dedicated a segment of the Conflict Hotline to addressing this topic. I’ve witnessed so much pain in people related to this topic, and I want to support people in finding solutions that truly allow the warmth of family to be primary instead of the bitterness of disagreements to prevail. I am doing a segment of a teleclass about it in December through the NVC Academy.

In my approach to these challenges, I trust that a workable solution, one that really supports everyone’s well-being and the family as a whole, is entirely possible. Toward that end, I would suggest to this person, if they could have access to this advice, a path that would offer a true connection within that newly created family. Reading and re-reading the question, I am drawn to a response that would be authentic, vulnerable, and respectful. Here’s what I could imagine this person saying that might reach her in-laws: “I am well aware that you have a strong opposition to Obama, and that my choice to vote for him is quite challenging for you. What I want, more than anything, is to have a Thanksgiving dinner that is enjoyable for all of us. Given the disparity of our views, I really doubt that talking about this would contribute to anyone’s pleasure at dinner. Would you join me in supporting peace and harmony by focusing on other topics instead of politics?”

I can imagine the in-laws hearing this and not getting insulted. I can’t imagine them hearing any of the suggestions that Emily Yoffe proposes and having their sense of dignity maintained in full. Although the difference may be subtle, for me it’s significant. I could so easily see how her first proposal, which is the closest to mine, could be taken as a dig, rubbing in the sense of defeat. Even if not, all of her proposals are disengaging from the in-laws. Mine, I’d like to believe, is equally acknowledging of the challenge of the moment for everyone while at the same time maintaining the possibility of dialogue. I sense it has the possibility to bring people together, despite and with their differences.

This, in a nutshell, is my own recipe for attending to challenging situations with authenticity and care: find a way to hold awareness of what’s important to everyone, how the situation appears from different perspectives, and what could lead to maximum connection and peace.

Why I Struggle with Fairness

Let’s take one more example from that same column from Emily Yoffe: the daughter who wants to exclude her stepmom and two small half-siblings from her wedding. What could the father do who is so torn about the situation? My own suggestion would be to have him tell his daughter as openly and vulnerably as possible about how painful it’s been for him, and then to tell her that he knows she is only doing this because of something that’s hugely important to her, and to invite her to tell him what that is. And then sit and listen, as wholeheartedly as he can, without inserting his own opinion or needs, so he can find a way to gain his daughter’s trust.

What would happen then? It’s impossible to know. Part of the faith, born of experience, that fuels my approach is that when we listen wholeheartedly and fully to another person both of us are changed in unpredictable ways. It could result in the daughter, having finally been heard, and opening her heart to trust her father, spontaneously shifting and inviting his new family after all. It could be, similarly and less dramatically, that after wiping out her tears from finally being heard, she will want to hear from him, and he can then tell her what’s been painful for him.

It could be that, having heard his daughter, the father would learn some deep and painful truths that will lead him to accept his daughter’s choice and start creating changes in the entire constellation of relationships. It could be that this conversation will just end with his hearing his daughter and with some heart reconnection, with no other external changes, except that now they can talk with each other and move together toward an unknown future they co-shape. An essential ingredient here is the willingness to open up to an unknown outcome instead of attempting to predict, decide, and manage the result of a conversation.

As I sat and read her column start to end, I was able to find the common denominator to all of her responses. Essentially, it seems to me that for every situation she looks for what is fair. I commend her on not always being simply on the side of the person asking the question. Sometimes she is advocating against what the person who raised the question wants, as in the situation in which a woman wants to have the opportunity to see her future newborn niece, who is destined to live only a few hours, despite her sister-in-law’s wish for privacy. Emily Yoffe is pretty blunt with her. I trust, fully, her integrity. What brings me sadness is that the solution, what “should” happen, is seen from the outside instead of being allowed to emerge from engaging with what matters to all involved.

Some years ago, I was introduced to Jonathan Haidt’s work about the different moral lenses that Liberals and Conservatives wear. His thesis, which I found fascinating, is that there are six dimensions to morality. One of them is common to both groups: freedom. The others are emphasized differently. Liberals are mostly drawn to the dimensions of fairness and care, and Conservatives tend to emphasize other dimensions: authority, group loyalty, and purity. After reading some of his earlier work (in which freedom was absent as a dimension), I came to the conclusion that what he called purity would more likely be captured by the word dignity. Then I took his quiz, which many thousands of people had already taken, something which affirmed his thesis. Given that I don’t consider myself Liberal, nor do I consider myself Conservative, I was totally curious to see what my results would be. What I discovered was that I scored high on care and purity/dignity, and low on everything else, including fairness.

I was not surprised. I’ve been thinking about fairness since the early days of being exposed to Nonviolent Communication. How does fairness square with human needs, the focus of Nonviolent Communication? The more I thought of it, the more I’ve come to conclude that fairness separates people from each other instead of bringing them together. The vision of finding solutions that work for everyone is so much more appealing to me than the prospect of trying to find out what’s fair.

When we focus on making it work for everyone, then everyone is in charge of their own needs, and is invited to incorporate others’ needs; together we find a solution. When we focus on fairness, we are no longer in an organic and intrinsic process, and instead are de facto appealing to an implicit higher authority that decides, for all of us, what’s fair. This lends itself to argument and win-lose, or to a compromise that leaves everyone mildly unhappy, rather than a coming together that results in a shift that everyone can embrace.

Is that always possible, some would ask? Until we try, we won’t know. We know, I know at least, that the path of arguing for what’s fair, what’s right, and what should be done, is the path of war. We’ve tried it, and I don’t see any evidence of it working. I’d like to believe that we can, as a species, begin experimenting with engaging with our full human needs, the core values and aspirations that inform our positions, opinions, likes and dislikes, and wishes. My small scale experiments, over seventeen years and by now with thousands of people, has been a resounding yes. Call me naïve, perhaps, and I still believe that such an approach would work at all levels, including seemingly intractable political conflicts such as the one currently raging in my country of birth, Israel. Insha’alla.

Miki Kashtan, Ph.D., is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication and serves as its lead facilitator and trainer.

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