November 2020: From Beth Fisher-Yoshida

Dear SPS Faculty,

The recent election process and results in the U.S. highlighted that we are a polarized nation. There are people who are at extreme ends of the continuum and are vocal about their beliefs and choices. Then there are the folks in the middle who are less vocal, but hold deeply held beliefs, as well. I remember it being coined as the silent majority years ago, maybe during the Vietnam War days.

In conflict situations we tend to see the other side as a monolith of like-minded people, and they are usually wrong, because they do not share the same beliefs as we do. Our own side is filled with rich variations and nuances and is so much more complex and interesting. This can be misleading and daunting when we think about how we are going to bridge the divide to move forward in a unified way.  It can be overwhelming and we are not acknowledging that “the other side” also has diversity of opinions and points of view. One way of knowing the range of these perspectives is by inquiring.

Humans are curious beings and have a need to know what is taking place. We seek information to satisfy that curiosity and in the absence of information we make up what we do not know. The drive for security of knowing and control over our environment pushes us to satisfy that need. These new stories that we have created to satisfy our curiosity become our reality and we get so comfortable with these new stories we forget that we were the inventors and now take them to be the Truth, capital T.

Perspective taking in these times is really critical and the first step is to recognize that you even have a perspective! We are so heavily invested in our own beliefs we lose sight of the fact others may have slightly or greatly differing points of view. There are many feelings that get in the way of having these conversations to explore different perspectives because they may be difficult and uncomfortable. Most people do not feel able to have these discussions because they do not want to engage in confrontations and they do not feel skilled enough to avoid conflict.

This is especially critical for us as Faculty to be able to hear past differences for ourselves and in our classroom management. There will be students who express themselves in ways that may trigger us or stimulate us to feel defensive and we need to figure out ways to deal with these moments. We are the leaders of the class and we have a spotlight on us so that whatever we do becomes even more amplified. At other times there may be disagreements that turn into bigger disturbances between students. We need to think of ways to effectively intervene.

These are some tips I have found useful to intervene to prevent escalation and turn the tone around in the conversation.

  • Listen first before expressing your own point of view: when the other side is heard they will be more open to hearing you
  • Ask gentle probing questions: showing an interest and trying to uncover the source of these points of view is informative and necessary
  • Express yourself respectfully: modeling respect sets the tone and has more of a chance of being replicated.

There may need to be many iterations of the process and the weighted distribution of doing a lot more listening to get to the expression part may be a reality. However, the alternative may be no progress at all and the longer negativity exists the more it will disintegrate the goodwill of those involved. Nipping this in the bud earlier on increases the chances for constructive outcomes. Besides, listening gives you information and information is power and allows you to develop compassion for those you deeply understand.

Thank you,

Beth Fisher-Yoshida