Living Side by Side Creates “Family”May 01, 2023 04:26PM ● By Dr. Randall Niehoff
Photo by Daniela J. Jaeger
To put the world in order, we must first
put the nation in order; to put the nation
in order, we must put the family in order;
to put the family in order, we must first
cultivate our personal life; we must first set
our hearts right. —5th century B.C.E.
Here on the Gulf Coast, residents continue to try to put things in order after the chaos of hurricane Ian’s direct hit last fall. The nation (via federal and state governments) sent lots of
help—symbolized by FEMA agents and the big, toothy-clawed trucks that have removed so much debris. As we locals work to recover, however, we still struggle with the debris of interpersonal issues in the troubled spaces we share, whether the size of that family circle is small (tensions
within a domestic household), medium (disagreements within a homeowner’s association), or large (the stressful give-and-take of city and county politics).
WHEN HAVING A DIFFICULT DISCUSSION WITH YOUR “FAMILY,”
THE GOAL IS TO UNDERSTAND, NOT CONQUER.
SPARKS ARISE FROM THREE FLASHPOINT ISSUES:WHETHER TO RELOCATE, RESTORE, OR REBUILD…
AND THEN, HOW TO GO ABOUT IT.
In each setting sparks arise from three flashpoint issues: whether to relocate, restore, or rebuild… and then, how to go about it. There’s the rub—a sure source of heat when what we
really want is light.
Whatever the arena of discourse, some issues do not lead smoothly to compromise or neatly wrapped solutions. In order to set our hearts right, we need to turn down the heat. Friction
can be destructive—ordered resolutions require empathy, openness to different perspectives, and two-way communication.
Alarmed by rapidly rising political tensions across communities and increasing polarization in our society, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his research partner, Caroline Mehl, co-founded the Constructive Dialogue Institute in 2017.
They have applied behavioral science to find ways to navigate conflict and problem-solve through collaboration; it begins by reframing the goals of conversation as achieving mutual understanding rather than personal victory (which sounds like a way to “first set our hearts right”). Here are their five suggestions for achieving more constructive disagreements:
1. Let go of winning. When having a difficult discussion with your “family,” the goal is to understand, not conquer. As Leo Tolstoy wisely pointed out, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina)
2. Take turns sharing your story. Research shows that people rarely change their minds about deeply held beliefs because of facts; but when one understands how an issue personally affects someone else, cooperation becomes possible. Like the old adage that you can’t understand other people else unless you walk a mile in their shoes, constructive dialogue encourages us simply
to stand in those shoes briefly in order to see how things look from that perspective.
3. Ask questions to understand, not judge. Notice the difference between these two approaches: “How can you possibly think that?” and “Can you tell me more about what led you to this view?”
4. Acknowledge the role of emotions. One does not have to agree with other people’s opinions to assure them that you recognize their strong, very real feelings. This is how trust is built.
5. When possible, seek common ground. When hearts are set right, it is possible to confront the issue as the challenge, and not each other. Rather than sitting face to face, a “family” can sit side by side and focus on the problem and possible solutions.
The Niehoffs have decided to restore their home of 32 years on Sanibel, a heartfelt decision.