There was a recent news story that exemplifies a problem we currently have in this country, how to support each other when we have different beliefs. The story involved a tow truck driver that refused to tow a woman when he discovered she was a Bernie Sanders supporter. She had been in an accident and this driver came to tow her car. He saw a Bernie Sanders sticker on her car and told her he wouldn’t tow her car for that reason. He further clarified that God came to him and told him to get in his truck and leave. He felt proud that he was able to stand up for what he believed in.
This political partisanism we are experiencing in our country isn’t much different from periods in our past except for this one thing, we are committed to getting our way at all costs. There is no room for working with the other party. Coming up with a decision that reflects both interests is seen as a defeat. We see each other as right or wrong, good or bad. This partisanism has trickled down to everyday personal relationships, hence the truck driver.
There are two problems that are driving this discord: we have developed an “enemy image” of the other person/party, and we don’t know how to hear what people are really saying. An enemy image, according to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, is something we develop when people do or say things we don’t agree with. We decide they are wrong or bad. This is a moralistic judgment.
Of course we need to make judgments in our lives, we all make value judgments, the qualities we value in life. We judge whether or not certain actions meet the needs we value. For example I value connection between people, and on a daily basis I judge whether or not certain actions are meeting that need. But there is a difference between a value judgment and a moralistic judgment.
With a moralistic judgment we label actions and people as wrong or bad. The tendency to do this seems to be related to beliefs we have been taught or picked up throughout life. My husband doesn’t like quiche. I don’t have any beliefs about what kind of person likes or doesn’t like quiche, so I don’t care if he doesn’t like quiche. That doesn’t tell me at all what kind of person I think he is.
However, I really value respect and support of others, so if my husband told me he thought Mexicans were mostly lazy and dishonest, I would see him as racist (bad) and question how I could even live with him. The problem with this sort of thinking is that judgment will get in the way of us making a connection with the other person to get our needs met.
Another problem with enemy images is our tendency to want to punish them. We have been taught that to change people they need to suffer enough that they see they are wrong and change. What often happens is people become resentful and more intent on continuing the behavior we don’t like. Even if people do change their behavior they are usually not doing it because they see the value in changing, but just to avoid the consequences. Punishment is not likely to help people accept responsibility for their actions and become aware that their well-being is dependent on the well-being of others.
The second problem involves our inability to hear what people are really saying. When people tell us about something, for example, they tell us they support people only using the bathroom that corresponds to the sex they were born with, we hear “you agree don’t you?” We either agree or disagree and the arguing begins.
We haven’t learned to hear what the needs are of the person making the statement. More than likely what they are saying is “I’m really worried that someone will be using the bathroom to take advantage of me or someone I love. I really want to be sure everyone can use the bathroom safely. Do you understand how important this is to me?” When we hear that, we can continue in the conversation and stay in integrity with out own beliefs. We can learn to hear people with more choices than agreement or disagreement.
Both of these problems were in play with the truck driver. First, he had an enemy image of Bernie Sanders or anyone who supported him. He believed that “those” kinds of people were bad and may not even pay him for his service. He decided to “punish” the driver of the car. She needed to understand how bad her beliefs were and that there were consequences for believing that way.
Second, he couldn’t hear her any other way. She didn’t say anything about Bernie Sanders, but he “saw a bunch of Bernie stuff” and heard her beliefs loud and clear. He wasn’t able to hear her say, “I’m really worried that our present economic system isn’t equitable to all. I’m angry that so many people aren’t being heard in our system.” To be honest if he could have heard that he might have been able to let go of enough of the enemy image to be able to tow her car.
This brings me to the bigger picture of politics. We actually have a great deal in common with each other when we look at the needs we have. And that is the crux of the issue. We haven’t been taught to see our world based on feelings and needs. To come to a satisfactory solution when faced with disagreements we don’t want to compromise, we want to find a way that meets the needs of everyone involved. Compromise means nobody really gets what they want. There is another way.
The steps to this process involve the willingness to connect to each other, the use of a communication strategy focused on feelings and needs, trust that this process will work, and patience. We have to stop trying to get people to do what we want, and instead create a trust that everyone’s needs will be valued and we will work to find a resolution that meets everyone’s needs. This is a very different energy from the one we are seeing presently.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change.” — Audre Lorde
Heather Schlessman, PhD is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has spent her career either working with or teaching about families. She is also a mother who, like so many other parents, spent years muddling her way raising 3 wonderfully different children, one who happens to be experiencing a disability. Fortunately she has a life partner who muddled along with her. Spending most of her time trying to be perfect, as that would be the safest way to live, she became aware of a desire to be able to see people in a more compassionate way. Little did she know that the person she needed the most compassion for was herself. There is a saying that when you are ready to learn a teacher will appear, and so it was for Dr. Schlessman. She was introduced to the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, and her world completely changed. She learned a way to have an intimate connection with herself and others, a way to truly contribute. Her passion now is to help others find their way to a more compassionate life. You can find more of Dr. Schlessman’s empathic expressions along with her husband’s, Rev. Mark Schlessman on their website.