Apr 11 2012

From Debate to Dialogue: Civility & the Transforming Power of Compassion

Published by at 6:15 pm under Minister's Musings

Last month, our School for Compassion took up the topic “How We Speak to One Another.” We borrowed from Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, where she writes, “During this step, we try to make ourselves mindful of the way we speak to others. When you argue, do you get away by your own cleverness and deliberately inflict pain on your opponent? Do you get personal? Will the points you make further the cause of understanding or are they exacerbating an already inflammatory situation? Are you really listening to your opponent? What would happen if—while debating a trivial matter that would have no serious consequences—you allowed yourself to lose the argument?”
          Here, then, was our homework: “If you find yourself becoming defensive or feeling a need to make a point and correct others in a conversation, attempt to shift to a place of asking questions rather than making statements. Express curiosity. Inquire about another person’s particular view and what informs it. Curiosity can open our hearts to be willing to see something from a different perspective than our own. Ask open-ended questions to shift from a debate to a dialogue.”

With this homework lodged in my mind and heart, I took myself to Mountain View’s most recent “Civility Dialogue.” This series of dialogues, sponsored by the city’s Human Relations Commission, seeks to change the nature of our conversations on hot-button topics from confrontational to civil, helping participants to find common ground, to honor the worth and dignity of those who hold opposing views, and to create hopeful solutions among divided members of a community.

         Each dialogue begins with a panel of experts or advocates on the topic sitting at a round table. A moderator asks questions that draw out the panelists’ different perspectives and experiences, as well as the hopes and fears that fuel their opinions. Then the audience breaks into small groups of ten to twelve. One of the panelists sits with each group as facilitator.

        On the night I attended, the topic was undocumented immigrants in Mountain View. The panel included Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, José Antonio Vargas, who “came out” in the New York Times Magazine last fall as undocumented. Vargas arrived from the Philippines to live with his grandparents when he was twelve. By his side sat Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen; Oscar García, the president of Mountain View’s Chamber of Commerce; conservative politician Don Barich; and Maria Marroquín, executive director of Mountain View’s Day Laborer Center. They spoke passionately but civilly to each other. Their differences seemed almost insurmountable.

          When we broke into small groups, José Antonio Vargas joined mine as our facilitator. In our circle were folks who were convinced that the majority of undocumented immigrants are criminals. A few said that Vargas should be deported immediately; one woman went off to speak with DA Jeff Rosen, a copy of Vargas’s NY Times Magazine article in her hand. She returned to confront Vargas with his “criminal” acts (fraudulent paperwork, which Vargas readily admits). I held my breath, expecting her to issue a citizen’s arrest in the next sentence.

           Others in our circle felt conflicted and confused about the whole topic, uncomfortable with both the longwinded passionate supporters of immigrants’ rights and the strident anti-immigrant voices. Still others wanted to lift up our common humanity, to undo myths about undocumented immigrants, and to get at the root causes of migrants’ desire to leave their homes and families and come to the United States, with or without documentation.

         Throughout, I tried to listen with “compassionate curiosity.” I vowed not to try to win an argument or even to enter into the debate, but rather to listen and to wonder about where each person was coming from. I was striving to empathize, even with those whose words made my heart race and my adrenaline pump. José Antonio Vargas modeled Karen Armstrong’s suggestions, asking questions rather than debating, demonstrating a sincere and respectful interest in what each person had to say.

          When I finally offered a few thoughts into the circle (in response to the woman who seemed intent on having Vargas arrested), I felt able to speak from a more grounded place, rather than from my own fear.

         I watched the former police officer in our group, who had complained about undocumented immigrants’ “criminality” and disrespect for the laws. (By the way, DA Rosen says that the proportion of undocumented immigrants in county jails exactly matches the proportion in the population, rather than their being disproportionately represented. That’s a good fact to know—but there I go again: am I trying to make my point and be “right,” instead of leaving you more space to reflect?) I paid attention, too, to another man who had entered the room with the sense that undocumented immigrants thought they were “better than” U.S. citizens, “thumbing their noses at our laws.” I saw both these men grow calmer and quieter after their initial outbursts; I witnessed them listening deeply to Vargas and others in the group. And at the end, I saw each of these men reach out to Vargas and shake his hand, offering a sincere smile and a “Thank you.”


          And I felt a change in myself, too. I would not have appreciated so deeply what was happening for others in my small group if I hadn’t listened twenty times more than I spoke. I wouldn’t have understood the nature of my own fears and responses if I had leapt in to convince others of my position. I wouldn’t have been able to still the rapid beating of my own heart and really hear others if I hadn’t had this practice to guide me.


         Karen Armstrong suggests applying this compassionate approach to transforming debate into dialogue on the smaller issues in our lives—the arguments we might be willing to “lose.” The Civility Dialogue gave me the chance to dive into this spiritual practice on a topic that feels hugely important, life-or-death for some of us, and morally loaded for our country, for our faith, for me. It was a great preparation for Justice General Assembly in Phoenix this June—and a wonderful way to grow my own compassion.


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