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A Magic Question for Healing a Divided Nation

Decision 2016 is behind us. Whether the candidate you voted for won or not, many of us on both sides are feeling a funk something like what spouses feel after an ugly marital spat. A mixture of anger, frustration, disbelief, guilt, shame, and feeling fundamentally misunderstood leads to a desire to withdraw, cut off all conversation, and rehearse how dreadfully wrong the other side is. At such moments there appears to be little clarity about how to heal the rift except a vague hope that somehow the passage of time might bring a return to normalcy. Comparing our recent election cycle to a marital fight works, I think, because if we’re honest, most of the tensions we see played out on the big world stage are familiar to us in the smaller circles of our lives.

Nobel Prize winning writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” From Walt Whitman’s words in Leaves of Grass, the great American poet would seem to concur: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” If we were more aware of our own contradictions and slower to jump on others for theirs, we might be able to see the vast goodness in every person, even in those with whom we strongly disagree.

I believe we can paddle forward together toward a more civil society by assuming the goodness and imperfection of everyone in the boat. It is also important that we avoid what psychologists call “learned helplessness”—a sense that it is all too big and messed up for our small lives to make any difference. Each one of us can do our part to propel our common boat in a healing direction, starting by changing the way we speak and listen to those with whom we live and work each day.

A question I picked up from the world’s top marriage researcher, John Gottman, holds the key to our nation’s healing process. When couples argue, Gottman says, they’re not having the conversation they really need to have. There’s a deeper layer that they are not getting to because they have become so aroused, one against the other. The question that gets us to the conversation we really need to have is: “What’s the dream behind this conflict for you?” I’ve seen this question produce magical results in my own marriage and for thousands of couples whom I’ve counseled. People don’t go into tension for no reason. They’re always defending a dream of some kind, and if we listen to that dream, we can avoid cycles of fruitless debate-mode battles.

Let’s see how this works on a small scale. If a husband gets angry at his wife for the high balance on a credit card statement, and she reacts with anger and defensiveness, they can easily withdraw and wonder why they must cycle time and again through the same conflict. But if one spouse asks, “What’s the dream behind this conflict for you?” and really listens, healing begins. She might say, “My dream is to have the freedom to make my own spending choices” or “I want to be in a marriage in which I don’t feel scolded like a child but truly valued for who I am.” If she reciprocates the question to him, he might say, “My dream is to not feel so constantly stressed by our spending” or, “I dream of living within our means and being able to save for an enjoyable and secure retirement.” Who’s right here? Both dreams need to be heard, but neither can be if the discourse stays at the level of attack and defend.

Imagine asking someone who voted for a candidate you couldn’t stand: “What’s the dream that led you to cast your vote that way?” And imagine avoiding any tendency to debate or discredit what that person says in response to your query. If asked “What’s your dream?” in this election, various voters might have said:

  • “I voted for the person who I felt could bring good jobs to our area, because my dream is to be able to support my family.”

  • “I dream of an America where everyone is included and we live up to being a beacon of tolerance and justice for the world.”

  • “I’m feeling afraid every day about terrorism—I dream of all of us being safe from random violence.”

  • “My dream is that women will one day be given the respect, dignity, and equal pay they deserve.”

  • “I dream of a government that works again, so I voted for someone I thought could somehow break up the gridlock in Washington.”

  • “I am afraid of getting sick and being without insurance. My dream is to have healthcare available for my loved ones and everyone in this country.”

  • “My business is really struggling with regulations and healthcare costs. My dream is to keep the doors open, to grow, and to not have to lay off employees.”

  • “I’m concerned about the viability of our planet, so my dream is to preserve it for all human generations to come and for all other living things.”

Even reading through these expressions of various voters’ dreams, you might have felt an immediate impulse to react, to give your version of the right answer. But if it is going to work, the “What’s the dream behind this conflict?” question needs to be followed up with three other magic words: “Tell me more.” When we avoid the tendency to give our answer to another person’s dream or tell them why their dream is wrong or less important than ours, we open up the possibility of civility, understanding, and healing. Try it when a loved one is upset with you. Just say “Tell me more” as many times as you need to until that person’s anger subsides and they thank you for listening and then offer to listen to you.

I’ve had the privilege of listening to thousands of human beings’ difficulties and fears for over thirty years. I’ve yet to meet a perfectly wise, loving, selfless person—someone with all the right answers to life’s biggest philosophical, political, economic, or spiritual questions. And I can’t be that person for the people who seek my consultation, because I too am still a work in progress. But I can offer to ask “What’s your dream?” and then follow it with “Tell me more.” That I can do. And I believe if we start offering that to one another, we can begin to feel again like one nation, indivisible.

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