We Need To Talk! Or Do We?

Get beyond constraints, formulas, and polarization in therapy and life.

Posted Feb 13, 2019

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To be sure, exploring the value of talk therapy—indeed of conversation itself—is relevant for social workers, counselors, psychiatrists and others who deal with people in distress. Their professional institutions have become so biased toward medications and short-term, structured interventions that the art of creating conversation and its role in helping and healing has, in many cases, gone by the wayside. Both Tom and Murray believe that the roles of therapist, counselor, and educator have become overdetermined and formulaic. They themselves are caring, creative, conversational, and improvisational practitioners. We’ll discuss how to get past the institutional restraints and biases and get the conversations going again.

However, concern with conversation is much broader than what goes on in the therapy room. People all over the United States and beyond are upset at what’s happening to civil and political discourse, especially when people disagree. Why such hateful speech? Mean-spirited Tweets? And closer to home: “I really wonder how I can sit at Thanksgiving dinner with ‘that’ uncle.” “Why do I feel silenced when people—even my closest friends—start ranting?” “How can I talk with people whose values I find repugnant?” These are just a few of the laments I’ve heard over the last year.

I’ve recently been to a number of professional conferences where the topic of conversation and dialogue—and the lack thereof—has taken center stage. A big concern is what to do about polarization. Many liberal and progressive people believe the world is desperate for dialogue across differences—across religions and ideologies of all kinds, about all kinds of issues that are dividing us, from vaccinations and immigration to the food we (should) eat to the changing climate of our planet. They’re frustrated when they meet people who don’t want to have a conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked recently, “How can we get people like that to dialogue?”

Well, maybe you don’t. Maybe you can’t. Having a conversation is not simply a matter of good (or ill) will. Maybe you don’t have the environment conducive for dialogue. Maybe you’ll have to create it. Maybe dialogue is the wrong activity for people who have no interest in it. Maybe you should, instead, discover if there’s anything they want to do with you.

Building that kind of environment is not simple or easy. In my experience, you need to start with something other than the disagreement. An environment in which we relate to each other as human beings, rather than as “people like that,” generally grows out of building things together—the meal you’re going to eat, the PTA, a birthday party, the local volunteer fire department, a soccer team for the kids, a committee to get a stop sign for a dangerous intersection. You can work together on all sorts of activities without ever agreeing on immigration or climate change. As I see it, having a conversation depends on having a relationship with the person(s) we’re talking with. Instead of letting the contentious issue organize how we relate, let’s build the relationship. Doing that might lead to discussing the issue, or it might not. At the very least we’ll be relating to each other as fellow human beings, instead of as “people like that.”

Copyright Lois Holzman