Following one of the most divisive and difficult elections in modern history, it feels like we’re now left with a country that’s more divided than ever. As a mediator and facilitator, I strive to keep my own ideological beliefs private and preserve an air of neutrality that will serve my diverse clients’ needs. This is a relatively new and still somewhat complicated role for me to play. As I imagined clients and stakeholders in union/management contract negotiations, city and county planning meetings, even school and nonprofit evaluation, I knew preserving my neutrality mattered…and I still felt dissatisfied with my personal, political inaction.
Neutrality vs. Activism
Any of my friends would tell you that in personal setting I’m not shy. I tend to not even be very diplomatic, and I get fired up about causes all the time. Indeed, I strongly support advocates and those who work creatively and tirelessly in pursuit of causes that align with their values. Given these passions, holding myself to a standard of neutrality and deep respect for all can be challenging. At times during this elections season I felt the same outrage and dismay that others felt. It often felt impossible to respond in ways that were both authentic to who I am as well as supportive of the work that I do.
In this space of honoring both my own values AND my professional creed, I’m finding a new psychological and professional mode. Beyond a purely professional need for neutrality, my place as a citizen and human being necessitates engagement in community dialogue. In our highly charged political climate, it seems that even sitting down and talking, really talking (by which I mean REALLY listening) to “the other side” is a radical act. Some would argue that by simply sitting down and listening to the other, you’re “selling out” or somehow condoning and normalizing their ideas but I posit that the alternatives do more damage and far less good.
A mentor of mine says that as a child, she would often listen to one side of a story and felt like it made good sense. Upon listening to the other side of the story, she found that she thought that side also made good sense. She spent years feeling like this reflected a wishy-washy personal perspective that lacked “backbone” of strong values. As a professional mediator and facilitator, however, she found what a gift this willingness to listen to and acknowledge diverse perspectives really is. How else can we shift from demonizing the other and discover our common ground, if not for a person who can hold our diverse truths at once? This particular mentor has brought together ranchers and loggers with environmentalists and policy makers to forge solutions that best meet the needs of all involved. It’s a truly radical idea.
Given our current tensions and seeing a solution in dialogue, I’m starting to appreciate the ways that activism and leadership can indeed fall in line with neutrality and listening. Consider the illustration below. To transform the explosive reality we see at the top, a radical neutral holds a space in the middle. Far from a passive act, this insertion requires tremendous effort, poise, and skill. Done poorly, both sides will leave further entrenched in their beliefs and more deeply angry with the other. Done well, all parties may be changed and the momentum grows.
Radical Neutrality in 2017
Looking ahead to 2017, I’m hoping to embrace this idea of radical neutrality, of nurturing space for dialogue across differences, and continuing to support others to do the same. Specifically I hope to:
- Listen with more curiosity and respect in my own personal life to those who think differently. Embrace opportunities to connect with those across political and ideological divides. Get comfortable with the discomfort when our ideas collide.
- Support thoughtful community dialogue with the League of Women Voters (of Larimer County) and the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University.
- Train others to listen deeply to those who disagree with them and instill a value for why listening matters.
- Model and nurture deep listening and learning across those differences through all my professional work. Regardless of whether I’m supporting a high-stakes contract negotiation, nonprofit strategic planning, or simply training employees how to better resolve conflict at work, listening and engagement across differences will unify my efforts.
It is not enough to say that two heads are better than one, that diversity is a gift, and wave our flags of collaboration. Instead, we must lean into the challenges of actually laboring together, especially when we see the world through different lenses. I hope you’ll join me on this (lifelong) journey. I’d love to hear about what it looks like in your life and learn with you along the way.
As you continue to explore these ideas, I’d like to recommend a few good reads: