Originally Published in the February 2017 Flagstaff Federated Church Newsletter
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail
Knitting our Society Together
Dr. King’s “garment of destiny” is showing wear. While the threads that unify us have always been tenuous, our current political climate has established historic lows in civility and compassion in our public discourse. More times than I would like, rather than choosing language that weaves our seemingly disparate threads of being together, people across the political spectrum are choosing statements and actions that threaten to rend our garment entirely.
I believe the actions we take in our personal relationships influence, and are influenced by, the larger political environment we inhabit. We have the power to resist the tide of divisiveness by choosing words and actions that close the gaps between us. One expression of this power is our response when the behavior of others upsets us. I’m passionate about helping people develop skills to reconcile with others when conflicts arise. Reconciliation is a process based on valuing oneself and the other equally that offers a path to knit people back together through their differences.
Tuning in to What Matters to You
The fibers in the “garment of destiny” are those things that matter to us. These things (or “life energies”) are universal human needs. Needs motivate all that we do, they are shared by all people, and they can be met in many ways. Categories of human needs include things such as survival, self-expression, safety, and purpose, as well as what matters to us in the social and emotional realms. Reconciliation asks us to look underneath the specific words and actions we observe, to discover the needs active in ourselves and others.
The first task is to get clear on what matters to us in the situation at hand by translating judgments into needs. This clarifies what we are wanting that we haven’t received. For example, years ago during a difficult period in my life, my father walked into my apartment and said “Dave, you can’t keep a house!” Immediately a firestorm of judgment rushed into my head: “He doesn’t care for me…He’s so critical…etc.” Had I acted on those judgments, our relationship would have been imperiled. Instead, I turned inside to notice what mattered to me. I found that I was upset and disappointed because I wanted support and care but wasn’t getting it.
Tuning in to What Matters in Others
A more challenging element of reconciliation is getting in touch with what matters to the other person. In order to have the resources to understand the other’s experience, we first must understand what we didn’t enjoy about the situation (i.e. our own unmet needs). Once we know our needs, we can practice “imaginative empathy” by guessing at the motivations beneath the other’s behavior. Though we can’t be certain what is going on in them, guessing at their unmet needs is a big step toward reconnection. This action puts us in the other’s shoes and prepares us for a reconciling dialogue.
When I considered my father’s words, I imagined that what mattered to him was my well-being. I imagined that he was concerned about me and surprised at the state of my apartment. I sensed that he cared for me but didn’t know how to express his caring in a way I could hear.
Reconciliation through Dialogue
By connecting with what matters to us and guessing at what matters to the other, we prepare ourselves for a reconciling dialogue to mend our differences. In a reconciling conversation, we fully express our needs and allow the other person to do the same. Since needs are universal, both parties are able to understand and appreciate the other’s motivations. From this point of understanding we can determine how to move forward with the relationship.
My awareness that I needed care and support, and my guess that my dad needed my well-being set the stage for our reconciling dialogue. I shared what mattered to me and listened closely to understand what mattered to my father. With this common understanding, we were able to reconcile our superficial differences and make an agreement about the future.