If . . . Then . . .

Our era of polarization reverberates with inflammatory, accusatory, and derogatory statements. Some urge as an antidote that we must speak with people of different political associations so that we can connect, with one another, establishing respect. Here’s an account of my recent re-introduction to communication skills in the context of getting people together, attempting to reduce some of the rigidity in our discourse.

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Attending the Collaboratory conference in Brooklyn this past week, I learned simple but deeply impactful lessons of communication. Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, commanded a room of over 300 Jewish leaders and innovators (a feat all by itself). Her topic was reimagining the way we gather, bringing meaning to conversations on levels great and small. I commend these techniques to you, through my own personal aural lens.

First, and perhaps foremost, use “I” phrases when addressing another person. Express beliefs, impressions, and understandings without using the accusatory “you” phrases that set another person apart.  Here’s an example: When disagreeing with another person, you can say “I see this issue another way” rather than the pejorative “I think YOU are wrong.”  Try another: “I’m feeling like I haven’t expressed myself clearly” rather than “You don’t understand.” Rather than tapping into ego, phrases focusing on the first person demonstrate a humility that welcomes another into your consciousness.

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A second lesson was the power of “if . . . then . . .” questions. Priya Parker attempted an experiment with the persons assembled. To facilitate meaningful engagement, she asked us to try phrasing questions in the “if . . . then . . . format.”  Several participants experimented with the suggestion. One young man stood to ask “If there are others in the room struggling with caring for a relative from a distance, then please reach out to me.” Parker’s expertise was evident in that moment. She taught a communication technique that engendered empathy, while sustaining a safe space for a person to share needs and vulnerability. As importantly, the question posed highlighted a commonality, speaking to an issue that many in the room had confronted and through which all felt similar pain.

A third valuable teaching moment occurred when Parker asked a room filled with leaders to call out the name of another leader who inspired us. The lesson began with a question on a relevant matter and demonstrated reverence, as each of dozens of names were called out. The manner in which the sharing unfolded was also powerful. Even in such a large crowd, each person called out a name with nearly no overlap of voices. Everyone offering a name was listening carefully enough so as to make space and give honor to the other names called out. Listening before offering is the mandate of righteous connectivity and communication of reconciliation. 

Humility, empathy, and listening are needed to countermand polarization, and are earned through uplifting communication. In Torah-speak this is finding the Divine in every other person. Each of us can practice these skills and explore how our relationships are enriched and, together, improve this world.  

R’ Evan J. Krame