Civil Dialogue: ‘A Republican, a Democrat and a Buddhist walk into a room …’

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
United America and Sojourners

Click on this image to visit the Sojourners site and read my entire story about the Belfast Dialogue.

Is civil dialogue across the political divide possible?

It may seem impossible in today’s uncivil political environment—but I know it is possible. Why? Because it actually did happen. I call it the Belfast Dialogue, named in honor of the Maine town where it took place.

Could you use it as a model for civil dialogue in your community?

Today, I’ll give you a quick summary of what took place in Belfast. For a more detailed account, see my article in Sojourners. All week, we’ll talk about the real possibilities of changing the national narrative from divide to dialogue.

Judith Simpson, a practicing Buddhist, and Dorothy Odell came up with the idea of doing something about the political divide rather than just complaining about it. Both are residents of the seaside town of Belfast, Maine. Belfast is on Penobscot Bay, about halfway up the Maine coast.

Dorothy used her local network to recruit a diverse group of people, ranging from libertarians and Tea Party Republicans to liberal Democrats and Progressives. They met for an evening at Dorothy’s home. Judith, an expert in the practice of Dialogue, facilitated the conversation. Dialogue with a capital “D” is a group process governed by several principles. One is that everyone must put their assumptions on hold. Another is that the process must be facilitated by someone with training in Dialogue.

And it actually worked. After a simple meal, the participants sat in a circle, spoke, and listened to one another. They spoke about their greatest fears for the country, and discovered a lot of common ground. They spoke about their greatest hopes for the country, and here, too, discovered that they have a lot in common. The event lasted about 3 hours or so.

The group didn’t debate, said Judith. Rather, “the group had spoken, listened, and thought together.”

Dorothy said, “People left the evening changed. They were affected positively by the experience.”

As I travel the country, talking about my latest book, United America, I tell everyone that we are united by 10 core values, but we often fall short of living these values. The Belfast Dialogue is an example of how to live the core value of respect for others—people of different faiths, races, and political affiliations. It is a model of how to put this core value into practice.

What do you think of the Belfast Dialogue?

Are you surprised to learn that real dialogue across the political divide is possible?

How could you adapt the model for use in your community?

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Civil Dialogue: When I met Aslan in Chicago…

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue

WBEZ Chicago at Navy PierI met Aslan.

No, it wasn’t Aslan, the fictional lion in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. There, Aslan is the wise and benevolent Lord of Narnia, generally meant by Lewis to be an alternative form of Jesus. No, it wasn’t that Aslan.

The Aslan I met is a cab driver in Chicago. I met him right after I was interviewed last Thursday on WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, about my new book, United America. (You can listen to the interview here.)

The WBEZ studios are located about halfway out on Chicago’s Navy Pier. To hail a cab, you have to walk west to the beginning of the pier. I took the first cab in line.

The driver, a young man, was curious about what I did. I told him a little and he asked more questions. I opened up a bit more and mentioned that I was just coming from WBEZ.

“The 10 values!” he exclaimed, turning around to look at me. “I just heard you on the radio! But I had a customer so I couldn’t hear about all 10 values.”

I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a small poster of the 10 core values. I gave it to him. Curious myself, I leaned over to read his license, and saw that his name was Aslan. Aslan is Turkish for lion.

“Where are you from, Aslan?”

“I’m from Kazakhstan. Do you know where it is?”

“I do.” Kazakhstan is a large, oil-rich, landlocked country in Central Asia. It was part of the former Soviet Union.

Aslan went on to tell me that he has been in America for only three years, recently married, and has a baby. He is studying computer programming at night, driving a cab during the day to support his family.

As we drove through Chicago, I remembered that I had a copy of United America with me. “Aslan,” I said, “would you accept a copy of my book?” He was thrilled and thanked me several times. I inscribed it to him and his family.

Now, you may be thinking that I gave a gift to Aslan. I see it the other way around. Last Thursday was International Pay It Forward Day. I had blogged about the topic all week, and I was beginning to feel like a hypocrite—I hadn’t practiced what I was preaching. Aslan gave me the opportunity to pay it forward—and right on the day itself.

And, our chance encounter was a moment of civil dialogue.

Can you recall a time when a hot topic came up—and you were surprised at how calmly people discussed the issue?

What tips do you have for encouraging civil dialogue?

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Civil Dialogue: Is it OK to use your cell phone during dinner?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
Girls with cell phones

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When you see civil behavior, what does it look like? How would you define it?

In a recent survey, Americans were asked to define civility in their own words. The most frequent responses were variations of “treat others with respect.” This can take many forms.

How about when someone uses a cell phone during dinner? Almost nine of ten Americans (86%) say that it is uncivil when someone you are eating with is on the phone, according to the Civility in America report. Almost as many agree that it is uncivil behavior when someone talks loudly on a cell phone in public. And, a third of Americans believe these problems will get worse over time.

Turning off you cell phone during dinner with family or friends is an example of what I call civility writ small. It’s a small thing, yet meaningful. Civility writ large is the Belfast Dialogue I talked about on Monday—a formal, facilitator-led dialogue across the political divide. Both levels of civility—small and large—are essential.

Treating others with respect is how we live the core American value of respect for others, one of the 10 core values. It’s the behavior that puts the principle into action. What does this mean, specifically?

My colleague Jane Dutton has written extensively about “respectful engagement” as a way to build high-quality connections. (See her Energize Your Workplace.) These connections are examples of civility writ small—everyday interactions that exhibit civility. One way to do this is by “conveying presence.” This means that you focus your attention on the other person. You can’t do that at dinner while having a cell phone conversation.

Another way is through “communicating affirmation.” Examples are “affirming someone’s situation” (empathizing with another’s situation and expressing it) and “looking for the value in the other.”

The point is that civil dialogue can be big or small. It can occur in everyday interactions, conversations, and meetings.

Do you use your cell phone during dinner?

What examples have you experience of civility writ small?

What about incivility writ small—or large?

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Civil Dialogue: Everyday philanthropy?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
the live civilly approach

Click the graphic to learn more about live civilly inc.

Dialogue is words. Dialogue is action.

Everyday philanthropy is the idea that we are surrounded each day with countless opportunities to give. I learned the concept from live civilly, inc.—a community movement that began as a family project in 2009. I discussed live civilly in an earlier column. It was initiated by three young sisters who saw homelessness and hunger around them and wanted to do something about it. Today, we check back in with them to see how the movement has grown.

Does this model inspire you to do the same?

Civility starts young. Part of the mission of live civilly, inc. is to create opportunities for young children to get involved and serve their community.

“Harnessing the energy and desire of the sisters, the Buss family developed live civilly, inc. as an effort to engage children ages 5-15 in meaningful service opportunities. The evolution began in 2011 with the incorporation of the organization and since that time, through partnerships with many local and regional organizations, live civilly has embraced its slogan, ‘…people helping people, helping people helping people…’ ”

Formally incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit, the Moorestown, New Jersey, organization has expanded exponentially. (Moorestown is across the river from Philadelphia.) For example, the organization has developed relationships with the department of parks and recreation, public library, public schools, garden club, Habitat for Humanity, and many corporate partners and individuals to establish a “web of assistance.”

New programs have been established, such as the ExCELS Snack Program, the Summer Lunch Program, the ExCELS Homework Help Program, HELP Programs, Community Supported Garden programs, and much more. Every program engages children in outreach. “By providing support and strength to all members of a community we build bridges to span the chasms of inequality, misunderstanding, and indifference.”

The live civilly approach has matured and developed over time. It addresses a hierarchy of human needs: nutritional security, educational security, and life skills security. These programs “empower young people to care for themselves, care for one another and become proactive members within their communities.”

Do you engage in everyday philanthropy?

What’s it like in your community?

How could you adapt the live civilly model?

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Civil Dialogue: Want to talk in person? Come to NAIN.

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
NAIN logo for Detroit gathering August 2014

Click this link to learn more about the NAIN conference and also to register, if you choose to join us.

Civil dialogue can occur across political divides. It can occur across religious differences as well. Enter NAIN—the North American Interfaith Network. NAIN is a nonprofit association connecting over 60 interfaith organizations and agencies. Its mission is to “build communication and mutual understanding among interfaith organizations and diverse religious groups throughout North America.”

And I’m delighted to be one of the presenters at this year’s NAIN conference, which is expected to draw several hundred men and women who are interested in bridging religious differences. After years of speaking through the OurValues project online, let me invite you to consider registering for NAIN—then come to Detroit and let’s talk in person. (Here is an article about one of my colleagues who also will be presenting a workshop at NAIN. And then here is the NAIN-Detroit webpage.)

So far this week, we’ve discussed many perspectives on civil dialogue: We started with the “Belfast Dialogue,” a real, recent case of civil dialogue across the political divide, then I described my unexpected encounter with Aslan in Chicago. We looked at civility writ small (not using your cell phone at dinner)—and everyday philanthropy with live civilly, inc.

Today, our focus is interfaith dialogue. Are you involved in interfaith dialogue?

NAIN is a major facilitator of interfaith dialogue. It “affirms humanity’s diverse and historic spiritual resources and bringing these to bear on contemporary global, national, regional and local issues.” NAIN does so through annual conferences, newsletter, blog, web site, and more.

Mark your calendars! The 26th annual NAIN Connect Conference takes place at Wayne State University (Detroit) on Sunday, August 10 through Wednesday, August 13, 2014. The conference is hosted by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. This year’s conference theme is “Bridging Borders and Boundaries.” I’m running a workshop based on my work about America’s 10 core values—values shared across demographic, political, and religious lines. Workshop attendees will participate in an exercise called “Images of America,” based on my new book, United America. This informative and fun exercise is a safe way to talk about values. (For a preview, take a look at our free discussion guides here.)

What has interfaith dialogue accomplished in your community?

Where can you start civil dialogue?

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