May 29–Open the Window: To the Opposition?

I suspect most of us have had experiences where we find ourselves in conversation with someone, sometimes even family members, with whom we seem to share nothing in common. With no apparent common ground, what does it mean to open the window to a person like that? Certainly, if another person is dangerous, we have an obligation to ourselves and others nearby to protect ourselves. Most such conversations, however, are not dangerous.  They are just uncomfortable largely because we don’t know what to do, and sometimes because we find the other person’s ideas to be offensive.

I don’t pretend to know what to do, either, but I am learning some things.  I’ve been reading the latest research on the human brain (thousands of studies correlated in the work Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story).  As it turns out the human brain is not just fond of stories.  It is organized by and for stories. It takes data of all kinds and turns them into story in order to make meaning of things.  It learns the quickest and retains memory the longest through story.  We all do it, most often unconsciously. The story organization and functions of the brain are pre-lingual,have been developing for millions of years, and newborn infants already know how to piece together a story in order to make sense of things.

Two items from this research are helping me understand the other person that I am trying to have a conversation with–any conversation, whether it’s going well or not. 1) every story is SOMEBODY’S story; and 2) all stories are grounded in personal experience.

That person with whom I am speaking and I–we are both telling ourselves stories in order to make sense of things.  You cannot argue someone out of their stories, but you can consciously ask about their stories and you can consciously ask them to listen to your stories.  Because stories are built out of personal experiences, we can ask the other person about their experiences.  If they declare that a person of a certain ethnicity is (fill in the blank), we can ask about their experiences with people of that ethnicity.  We can offer to tell them our stories with people of that ethnicity.

There is no doubt that taking this approach takes time and a good deal of patience, but it is a way of opening the window.  It is also a way of creating new experiences for both of us out of which we will both go away and create stories for ourselves.  No argument that we could ever have will come even close to that.  Ironically, when I engage in blistering arguments with the other person, THAT experience becomes fodder for both of us to tell stories, too–stories that contribute to the vast divide between us in the future.

Bob Patrick

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