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Can we talk? In a meaningful way, that is…

A few weeks ago, when our weather was so bad, I was taking a walk in Wallingford and came upon two men trying to move a huge rock. One man, who turned out to be a landscape architect, told me that the rock had become dislodged from the garden because of the rain.

So we started chatting about the awful weather we were having, how cold and unpleasant and depressing it was.

Then we both stopped ourselves, regretting our whining about the weather. We reminded each other that a little rain and cold was better than what the rest of the country was having: sizzling heat, fires and storms.

Then he said, “It’s not going to get any better, either.”

“No,” I replied, with a little hesitation, “not with global warming and climate change....”

I hesitated because I felt a little nervous bringing up climate change. I wasn’t really sure what he meant with his comment about things getting worse. I feared that if I mentioned climate change, he might be a right-winger and start denouncing people who believe in global warming.

Instead, he said, “Yes, all those climate-change deniers out there! How can they do it? There's obviously no reasoning going on.”

We continued to chat about what caused this problem of climate-change deniers, mentioning things like the misinformation broadcast by FOX News and the fact that people didn’t have time to keep themselves informed.

Then I mentioned research I’d been reading that concludes that people on the right denounce the science of global warming partly because that’s what all their friends do. It gives them a feeling of belonging and solidarity against the liberals. Accepting the science of climate change would break their bonds with each other: They want to feel they belong.

He responded by reminiscing about the loss of community, saying, “It used to be that, if you had a problem, you’d tell one person, and they would tell everyone in town and everyone would talk about it and solve your problem. We just don’t have that kind of community anymore, what with all the texting and tweeting.”

We continued to talk about how important community was.

Finding understanding

I thought about that conversation a lot. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be very significant, but little chats like these are very important.

First, it’s a way of creating community — talking to each other! And the research says that these kinds of encounters are very good for your health. They give you the social connection that is so important for our wellbeing. Like the right-wingers, we also need to belong.

But there the similarity stops. Somehow, people in the Tea Party seem fueled by anger: Denouncing people on the left, they reject reason in favor of vitriol and spite. Their solidarity is based on “us against them” and generates hate and violence.

This isn’t good for anyone — the haters or the objects of the hate.

Instead, my new friend and I talked about the right wing without ranting and raving. We didn’t call them names or denounce them; we tried to understand.

Because we didn’t engage in spite, we enjoyed our conversation. We felt really good — about each other, about ourselves and even about the chance that we might be able to do something about climate change.

This kind of interchange is so important. When conversation is civil and supportive, as ours was, we are more open and more willing to learn from each other. We feel hopeful and optimistic. We’re even more likely to take positive action.

Build on the conversation

But sometimes conversations get competitive and unpleasant. Everyone is trying to prove they’re right — that they’re smarter than everyone else. This drains our spirit, and we lose our energy to work for change.

So we need to remember, in any kind of conversation, that it’s not a contest. Think of it as a barn-raising: You’re helping each other build something. Say what you think, but don’t try to convince everyone you’re right. Build on what the other person says, rather than attack it.

Take a risk to speak out on your political values, but do it in a way that tells the other person that they won’t be attacked. Let them feel that you welcome what they have to say. Help them feel that we’re all part of the same community.

As American philosopher John Dewey said, “Democracy is born in conversation.”

CECILE ANDREWS is the author of “Less is More,” “Slow is Beautiful” and “Circle of Simplicity.” She can be reached at cecile@ cecileandrews.com.

Editorial Notes: Cecile Andrews is a regular contributor to Energy Bulletin. Her thinking on conversation and community have influenced me greatly. A new book of Cecile's on the revolutionary potential of these practices is due out from New Society publishers in several months. The title is Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community, and the Common Good. -BA

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