How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
I was an angry activist, feminist, environmentalist, and I guess, person. I managed a women’s center, and one morning I had a predictably frustrating meeting with the male leader of a local crisis pregnancy clinic.
Stewing on the walk back to my office, I found myself in the middle of an anti-abortion demonstration, the kind where solemn people hold big signs featuring bloodied fetuses. I completely lost my shit.
All I remember is going up to one of the protestors, grabbing her sign and smashing it under my foot, and screaming, "GIVE ME YOUR UTERUS, YOU DON'T DESERVE IT!"
A counter-protest group who had peacefully assembled watched the whole thing, shocked (and sort of impressed, I was later told), and after yelling, “Motherfuckers!!!!” repeatedly, my blurred vision and I walked on. This incident was the most extreme, but I’ve had countless less intense but still rage-filled, or generally unpleasant, interactions over world issues. Hanging out at a bar with friends, meeting new people at a beach BBQ, going out for lunch with my aunt- all of these opportunities for awesomeness and enjoyment could quickly turn into something ugly.
I remember a bonfire where an acquaintance burned a bunch of plastic, resulting in a heated discussion, then screaming match about climate change.
As a public health student, I got particularly keyed up about access to health care. I was invited to a roundtable discussion about healthcare reforms and after 15 minutes or so, the moderator told me that I was communicating in a way that discouraged others from sharing their opinions. Offended and self-righteous, I walked out.
The irony was that so much of my professional life and personal identity revolved around connecting with others, building community, and creating spaces for silenced people to find their power and voice. I devoted my life to these values. But on my off-time I was continuously harming these movements with my critical, harsh, and straight-up inappropriate communication style.
After bursting into tears while describing rape culture to yet another taken-aback acquaintance, I knew something had to change. I hired a life coach, which sounds pretty douche-tastic but was actually very helpful in pinpointing my underlying issues.
It turned out that what bothered me so much about people having “wrong” opinions is that I felt that they were contributing to an unjust world, and all of the terrible issues people like myself were trying to combat. Like, if someone thinks consent is fuzzy, they’re probably going to sexually assault someone or make excuses for those who do.
As someone who was up to her freaking eyeballs with all the terrible events and power dynamics and exploitation, I felt it was up to me to let people know the Truth (aka my opinion), and try like hell to convince them to cast aside all of their Fox “news” and popular culture-induced shitty garbage opinions.
It’s hard to believe people weren’t more receptive, huh?
Changing the world through interactions
I was so focused on the issues that I neglected to realize the value of positive, authentic interactions. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “You can have no influence over those for whom you have underlying contempt.” Isn’t that so true?
I remember a conversation with a friend’s dad when I was 16. In terms of political views, my family could have started the Tea Party. I was brainwashed appropriately, and when George W. Bush was seeking reelection, my Volvo was outfitted with a supportive bumper sticker.
My friend’s liberal dad, Tom, asked me about it and we started talking about politics. He casually asked me questions with genuine curiosity, and expressed his concerns for the country’s future. I’m sure I was a bit defensive (my signature style) but later on as I gathered other information, points Tom had made would float to the front of my mind.
He planted a seed, which made me start questioning my beliefs. I have no doubt that if he had been rude and angry, I would have dug in my heels. And our relationship, which I still value today, could have been permanently strained.
Non-violent communication IS social change.
A huge turning point occurred when I read Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg, the granddaddy of modern Non-Violent Communication (NVC). NVC says that all people share the same needs, including autonomy, integrity, meaning, connection, physical well-being, and play/spiritual communion.
NVC teaches techniques to “listen between the lines,” or hear what the person is truly expressing. We learn to ask, “What need is under their defensiveness?” The listening process involves asking questions to make sure you understand what the person is really saying, which also serves to help them clarify their own thoughts and feelings.
An example is, “It sounds like you’re frustrated because you think Affirmative Action makes it harder for you to get a job and support yourself.” Notice how this sounds when compared to, “As a white privileged male you have no idea what it’s like to have odds stacked against you.” This method shows that you genuinely want to hear them, rather than fix their problem (“What you could do is…”) or minimize it (“It’s not that bad.”).
Equally important is recognizing and taking full responsibility for my own needs and feelings, and having the courage to express them. To do this, there are three steps:
1. Differentiate between thoughts and feelings
2. Identify my need
3. Express a request for what you want them to do or be like (as opposed to NOT do)
I have a need for a peaceful relationship with you. When we talk about politics, I feel frustrated and anxious. Can we talk about something else please?
I have a need for well-being and autonomy. When I hear that you support laws that compromise my ability to make decisions about my reproductive health, I feel scared and out of control. Will you please tell me what you heard me say?
At first, it seemed really frightening to actually own my feelings and express them. It’s much easier to blame other people, isn’t it? But violence inherent in the language I was using was the same violence I was working to help overcome. If we examine any social issue, from racism to factory farming to homelessness to women’s rights, it is not difficult to see inherent violence.
That’s why practicing (and subsequently modeling) deep listening and authentically expressing what we feel, think, and need is a revolutionary act of peace.
Becoming an Anthropologist
Now, when I interact with someone whose opinions differ from my own (so, like, every day), I channel my inner anthropologist. A good anthropologist doesn’t go into a village and start screaming, “No! Those aren’t for eating! What the hell is wrong with you people?” Instead, she is present to what is happening, and attempts to understand the underlying motives.
This means coming into a conversation with genuine interest rather than a hidden agenda to convert the person or fly off on unsolicited rants. At first it was difficult to bite my tongue while listening to someone justify using the word “retarded,” or list politicians that might be the anti-Christ. But now, I totally dig these discussions.
I always learn something new, and am reminded that my judgments of people are unfair and just plain incorrect. Whereas differences of opinion used to bring out the worst, it now presents the opportunity to give someone the huge and extraordinary gift of listening to understand without condescension, interruption, or distraction.
In addition to revolutionizing my relationships with others, my relationship with myself has improved tremendously. My harsh and judgmental attitude toward others first needed to be addressed within myself. My worst fear was being judged and called a hypocrite. Now, I love hypocrisy. I think human contradictions are capable of telling us so much.
Part of being nice to myself and respecting my needs involves taking breaks from the endless suffering and drama of the world. I don’t keep up with the news all the time, and I try to be conscious of my social media intake.
After I kept feeling this weird cognitive dissonance as I scrolled through Facebook, with “massacre in Syria” and “lunchtime tapas!” right next to each other, I decided to deactivate my account. Maybe forever, maybe not, I’ll see how I feel. My purpose is to contribute to a happy, healthy, peaceful world, so it’s my top priority to practice being those things first.
Above my desk is a sign that says, “Everyone is evolving exactly as they are supposed to,” which is inspired by the teachings of Byron Katie (if you don’t know who she is, oh please remedy that immediately). In my highest vision of the world, we take this seriously, and learn to accept and draw from each person’s place on the journey, for the betterment of all.