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How to discuss the UK riots – without getting burned

Like busy intersections, every hot topic can be viewed from a variety of angles.
 Linda S. Wallace

Like busy intersections, every hot topic can be viewed from a variety of angles. Where we stand – to the right, to the left, in the center – ultimately shapes how we view the passing parades of people and cars around us.

Great Britain’s fiery riots and out-of-control looters and the teen mobs in Philadelphia attacking passersby without provocation are issues likely to trigger our cultural filters, which then makes it harder for us to see and consider conflicting perspectives.

If we are liberal, we tend to live on the collectivistic side of the street. We examine the way the community influences individuals – giving privileges and free passes to some, while setting up roadblocks for others. In this case, we are more likely to say the London looters and the Philadelphia flash mobs are evidence of failed and inequitable social policies, including non-diverse police forces and inequitable policing practices, unequal schools and disparate employment opportunity.

However, if we are conservative, then we prefer the individualistic side of the avenue. We believe that the individual, ultimately, determines his or her level of success in life. So we are more likely to place blame on the shoulder of the youth’s parents – and argue that dysfunctional communities and broken families are the kinder that started this anger and greed-driven blaze.

The same holds true for the teens in Philadelphia. Either we will tend to blame the parents, or we tend to blame the city for raising a generation of students who can’t find jobs or a way out of street life. Wealth has been stolen from the city’s minority neighborhoods, where poor parents now pay higher property taxes than some of the city’s affluent because of the city’s tax abatement policies. What’s needed is a meeting on middle ground, where both sides can be debated and heard.

Liberals and conservatives, looking in different directions, really need each other to develop an accurate road map and figure a way out. That’s often true with our most complex, thorniest problems. Yet, instead of working together, we try to score points.  All the while, the children and the innocents suffer.

As a result, the conversation gets stuck and we are unable to solve problems or make progress.

Today, I am proposing a few simple steps for holding breakthrough dialogs:

1. You know your view is correct, right? So invest your time trying to understand why other groups are right as well. In other words, don’t stay on your corner and look out at the intersection. Get out of the car and examine that situation from new angles.

2. To maintain credibility in a powerful dialog, don’t talk about people or groups you have never met, you don’t understand or you don’t know. Liberals, this means no sweeping generalizations about the police; conservatives, no sweeping generalizations about poor black youth.

3. Be prepared to listen without offering a response. Perhaps you might come back the next day – after you have had a chance for quiet reflection – to share what you learned. Create a learning competition rather than a competition designed to score points.

4. Be prepared to evaluate and rethink your beliefs, assumptions and world views. High performance learners sometimes have to let go of popular beliefs to become complex thinkers. Don’t do it for the rioters or the mobs, do it for you.

(Linda S. Wallace is The Cultural Coach. Visit her blog, Cultural IQ, at http://theculturalcoach.typepad.com/cultural_iq/.)

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