I have been taking part in an interesting series of events called AMIDST (Edinburgh) which set out to understand how we can have better conversations with those we disagree with. As the AMIDST team put it,
“From our communities and organisations to Brexit or Scottish independence – the need to step out of our bubbles and foster better conversations where we live, work and play is more vital than ever. But it’s also hard. Fusing shared reflection and practice, Amidst (Edinburgh) is a free, six-part event series, exploring how we can create more courageous and empathetic connections, to bring about long-lasting change for self, city, and the common good.”
It’s a slow and careful process, just feeling its way as the path it is following emerges a little more with every gathering, always asking the question how can we better disagree so the outcome creates new thinking and better understanding rather than retrenchment, prejudice reconfirmed and conflict re created.
The art of managing difficult conversations is much needed, often unexpectedly. Last Sunday, on a training walk in preparation for my attempt to complete the West Highland Way this October, I stopped in a small shelter for lunch as it was raining. A lovely older couple had taken refuge before me and we got chatting. I was enjoying the conversation when suddenly, out of no-where, in response to me telling him I worked for Cyrenians and explaining a bit of our work, the old man began to trot out the “they just do it to themselves”, “they wouldn’t take a house if you offered them one” and “the drug users don’t want to change” nonsense that so blights our conversations about the trauma of homelessness. I had to dig deep to remain respectful and keep my integrity by finding an answer that challenged his comments with letting him know what I was really feeling about what he had said!
In my previous life as a politician, crunchy conversations were a daily occurrence though the drivers were rarely commitment to the values that we were supposed to share. Instead what framed so much of what passed for political debate was often complex and often unspoken allegiances, shifting patterns of power and individual ambition, loyalty to a particular department or service for which individual s had responsibility, competing pressures of local community groups who regularly held opposing views but all claimed to speak for the community, the desire for re-election and the fear (or lack of fear) of the party whip. The challenge wasn’t dealing with the dogs abuse but working out what particular pressures were driving the dogs abuse I was hearing that day. Only by beginning there could I make sense of the actual words that were spoken. It was often in the unsaid things or the exploring the choice of language that the true situation became clear.
The election campaign we are in the midst of is not exactly producing good role models for dealing with crunchy conversations though the brief “truce” to mark the work and life of Jo Cox is a good and helpful exception; though there is some irony in calling it a “truce”! Choice of language can speak volumes about what’s really happening in peoples world view!
Cyrenians Outreach team journey with folk who are most regularly spoken of in aggressive or abusive language, who experience violence just for being homeless, whose lives are written off in a newspaper headline or a pub conversation and who are condemned as being lazy or choosing their lifestyle. Living with the levels of trauma that street life brings and knowing you are written off by much of society – or at least believing you are – is a very tough reality from which to escape – even if you know what it is you want to escape to or if you have the courage, the resilience or even the self-worth to try to change your circumstance.
The Outreach team have daily crunchy conversations with those they journey with. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a journey, the person is unable to even think about changing the circumstances they find themselves in and the idea of a destination is beyond their imagination. When they experience dogs abuse they have to step back, keep strong and hold to our values of compassion and integrity, even though that can be hugely draining. But the alternative – rejection and conflict – is not a better plan nor will it have a better outcome. The Outreach team, amongst many other skills, use the idea of “unconditional positive regard” – the challenge to keep seeing the person beyond and behind the action, the choices and the words. It’s not easy but it is what works. It might perhaps be a useful ideal to take to other places, like the AMDIST conversations, when the default of conflict and rejection, such as our political debates, is so unhelpful as to be destructive – meaning we all suffer because those we entrust with power to make decisions on our behalf do so badly and for the wrong reasons.
25 May 2017