Them’s Fightin’ Words

Minding my own business on Twitter, as I do, I came across an article that I could have written.

Although I rarely post anything on Facebook beyond the occasional Sandra Boynton drawing, I decided to post a link to the article. A few minutes later I deleted it. For me to post something as potentially divisive as this went way against the grain of what I normally post, which is to say, nothing. It would be the equivalent of disagreeing with your husband one night whether to get pizza or wings and the next morning greeting him with I want a divorce. In other words, while it could be true, this is called going nuclear.

Instead I decided to write this article that has been noodling around in my brain since Sunday.

In their book, Getting the Love you Want, Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt do a MASTERFUL job of explaining how in marriage we make choices when choosing a mate that are directly related to trying to fix a childhood wound.

After the honeymoon period, couples enter into a power struggle because we each continue to try to get that childhood need met and resolved. Because we are aiming for different results, we sustain the power struggle. Do you have one or a few arguments that simply cannot be resolved? That’s the power struggle because each partner has their most logical position and is deeply committed to that position.

Greg and I practiced our power struggle so long and so vociferously, we just about perfected it before we finally heard of the book and more importantly, the imago dialogue. While the concept is simple, the results are phenomenal. Instead of partner one saying the Same Old Thing and partner two responding the Same Old Way, in the dialogue, partner two simply listens and mirrors what partner one says. Gone are the earnest machinations to change partner one’s mind. In place is partner two being willing to listen to what’s in partner one’s mind and inner world.

Sounds simple, right? There’s a little more to it, namely some empathy and some validation but until you actually use the dialogue yourself your conversation slash argument will go the very same unsatisfying way it always does.

We hadn’t gone as far as talking about divorce but we were both beside ourselves with frustration and wondering if we would ever find a way to be on the same page about our power struggle topics. With the imago dialogue we have found a way to truly listen and hear each other. We don’t try to correct the other person’s thinking. We don’t try to defend ourselves. We don’t try to explain why the speaker is wrong. We listen. We mirror. We empathize. We validate.

So it occurred to me that in our current political landscape we are locked to the death in a power struggle. I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t try to change anyone’s mind who is on the other side of the aisle because I believe they are as entrenched in their position as I am in mine. And there is no good to come of simply engaging in the power struggle once again.

I might be the most compassionate champion of the underdogs in our society (well, no, I’m probably way down on the list) but for people who believe that underdogs just need to do a better job of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, that if the underdogs would simply take personal responsibility for their lives, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish, being compassionate is mystifying or at the very least, beside the point. So when I ask the Individual Responsibility people to have compassion they hear me saying that people don’t need to take individual responsibility, that a victim mentality can’t be overcome

You can see that this conversation will go nowhere and will never find common ground because each side is starting from an irreconcilable position and is locked in a power struggle which boils down to “I’m right,” and also, “No, I’M right.” It’s a power struggle with no resolution.

So if I post an article wherein the outgoing president is called demonic, not only is that term going to trigger people who believe he is somehow appointed by god, there will be a deeper and wider chasm as the power struggle intensifies.

Just imagine if you will though if a democrat listened and mirrored what a republican said, or vice versa. Or call it a conservative and a liberal.

I got the idea for this application by listening to an 18-minute you tube video posted by one of my Facebook friends with whom I differ completely politically. It’s pretty good but the bottom line I got from it is that conservatives think America is good and liberals think America is bad, and the core issue is slavery. This speaker praises Donald Trump because he feels no guilt for the past events in our country. The speaker tells us that to be liberal means you must believe our country is bad but to be conservative means you freely believe our country is good.

That’s the power struggle right there. There are multiple ways in which liberals and conservatives disagree but I can’t think of anything more timely than whether or not we have a problem with systemic racism in our country. If you think we don’t that means you have a certain understanding of demonstrations where protesters have had enough of the treatment black people have received at the hand of the police. “The black person shouldn’t have done x, y, or z and there wouldn’t have been a problem,” we want to believe. And of course, people who are sympathetic to the demonstrators see innumerable situations when driving while black or walking while black or shopping while black end up with completely different outcomes than driving while white.

I certainly never worry about getting pulled over or followed in a store or questioned because I’m standing with a group of friends. I know that if I ever get stopped, my papers are in order and I look like anything but a criminal no matter who is looking at me and I never worry. But for African-Americans, it may very well be a different experience, where suspicion is present simply because of skin color.

But can you imagine if instead of the conversation going like this:

Black person: I hate being followed in a store like they suspect I’m about to steal something.

White person: I’m sure you’re imagining things.

Black person: no I’m not. I see the glances and the casual movements of the clerk standing near me, watching me without seeming to watch me.

White person: well maybe you’re doing something suspicious.

The conversation goes like this:

Black person (BP): I hate being followed in a store like they think I’m about to steal something.

White person (WP): You hate being followed as if they expect you to steal. Is there more?

BP: Yes. When I’m just shopping like everyone else in the store, it feels awful to think that the clerk is paying extra attention to me for no reason other than that I am black.

WP: So when you’re shopping it’s really uncomfortable and feels awful to think you’re being extra scrutinized because you’re black.

BP: Yes. I’m not a thief or a shoplifter and I’d like to be able to shop without the extra scrutiny. When I get questioned about potential theft that makes it a hundred times worse.

WP: You don’t like the extra scrutiny and you certainly don’t like being questioned about potential theft as that makes the experience so much worse.

BP: It reminds me of my cousins and uncles and friends who have all experienced something similar without any justification. What conclusion is there to draw other than than people see us as a threat simply because of the color of our skin?

WP: So it’s not only you who has experienced this but your relatives and your friends and the only consistency is that this happens to black people so it seems like the most logical reason why you are under suspicion.

BP: Yes you are hearing me.

WP: So you have had the experience of being followed in a store for seemingly no reason that you can discern, as have your friends and relatives. It feels crummy to be a person of suspicion when you are simply shopping, browsing, picking up things to try on, normal shopping behavior. I can see where that would get old and feel bad and I understand why you might conclude it is an issue of your skin color since it happens to your friends and relatives. Did I get you?

BP: Yes you heard what I said.

WP: So I would guess you maybe feel unfairly singled out? Ashamed? Angry? Discriminated against?

BP: Yep all those things. Also despairing and depressed. And sick to death of being treated differently.

WP: So yeah I can definitely see how it would get old to be watched really closely when you are just going about your business as though because you have black skin it means there’s a high chance you’re a criminal. I can only imagine how painful that must be.

BP: I feel like you got what I’m saying. Thank you.

WP: Thanks for telling me what it’s like for you. I understand more of where you’re coming from and I can see how painful it is to be looked at differently because of the color of your skin.

Nowhere in this conversation did the WP try to justify the behavior of the clerk; or try to convince the speaker they’re imagining things, or worst of all, explaining that “more black people shoplift so the clerk is justified.” What kind of connection do you think is made in the second conversation compared to the first one?

What would happen if we started listening to people without trying to change their mind or correct them or convince them? If the experience Greg and I have had in our relationship is any indication, there could be some major healing in our country. But it takes willing to truly immerse oneself into the experience as expressed by another person. Listening, mirroring, empathizing, validating. Maybe then we would come away from a conversation having learning something rather than simply restated our portion of the power struggle again and again. I for one would be excited to experiment. How about you? We might end up with something more like the squirrels below instead of the one at the top of the page.

8 thoughts on “Them’s Fightin’ Words

  1. This is so good Susan. Thank you for the effort to get the messsge out there.I’m going to use this for myself. But how goooood would it be if it was the way of our politicians – world over. Thinking of you guys there – we hear about it every day and it must be so painful to be living in this struggle.


    1. Truthfully it causes me a lot of anxiety. I think I made myself blissfully unaware of politics while I was in the thick of mothering. I had no attention or energy left over to focus on politics. But these last couple of years some space has been freed up.

      I do wonder what could be accomplished if we did a whole lot of this type of dialogue. It could be amazing.

      Thank you for reading and for commenting!


  2. Wow…so helpful to see an example of this work in action. Do you think it can be practiced or effective if only one person knows the technique? I imagine it could be really frustrating to bring that level of presence and compassion to the other person, but not be received in kind. What advice do you have in a case like that?


    1. I think it depends on the situation. It’s not complicated to explain to someone as far as letting them know what I would be doing as a listener. So yes you can do this even if only one person knows the dialogue format well, but I think it’s helpful for the “sender” to understand why the “receiver” is mirroring, etc so that the structured format doesn’t come across as stilted. I’ve done this with someone to give them the experience of being truly heard and their experience was quite noticeably different than normal interactions they have with people.


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