A week or so ago, I called out a woman using disparaging terms to describe another woman’s physical appearance in a private Facebook group, simply because they differed politically. Despite posting in a group with several administrators and clear guidelines about proper language, and despite my self-imposed ban on engaging in online political conversations, the posted meme that mocked another woman’s physical deformity crossed all my red lines.
I politely asked how this helped further our collective cause, and pointed out that it was the same tactic employed by the other side, but this woman wasn’t having any disagreement to her post: These women are evil, and their physical deformity was proof of it. I politely ended my part in the conversation, wrote a complaint to the group’s founder, and started to plan.
Five years ago, I started a series of salon gatherings called The Here & There Club, creating a facilitated space for people like me — educated, accomplished, immigrants to Israel by choice — who at the time were not only becoming a quickly growing demographic in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, but were increasingly finding it hard to find themselves in Israeli society. Like in all societies, and especially in one as fraught with complexity as ours, there’s a knee-jerk tendency by natives to dismiss the thoughts of immigrants: “You didn’t grow up here, so you don’t understand….” or “Oh, you didn’t serve in the army? Then you won’t get it….”
Creating a space away from such judgement, conscious and otherwise, was only part of the challenge. The other was how to listen, and not just be heard. I wanted to create something that I would naturally attend, as the frontal lectures that make up the majority of existing events for both English- and Hebrew-speakers are too passive for me: My opinion is no less valid than the speaker’s, and believe me I have an opinion! Why don’t I deserve to be heard?
The answer came in the active listening and mediation workshop that I took in high school, admittedly a turning point in my self-development, from surly and opinionated to diplomatic and opinionated. Literally forcing yourself to stop and listen to the other person, and showing that you’re at least letting them speak — making eye contact and nodding one’s head — goes a long way in creating a connection and to get your own point heard.
Facilitated conversations about the issues that affect us, which are at the heart of the Club, are a start to creating civil engagement; and ahead of April’s elections to the Knesset, the need is great. But without undertaking the same coursework that I personally did, how can we all promote this on a regular basis? How do we start?
First, and without sounding patronizing, take a deep breath before replying. Count to two before responding, allowing yourself to gather your thoughts and for theirs to linger in the air. Our natural need to be heard trumps the desire to listen.
Second, ask yourself: How can I ensure that the person listening to me is actually listening? How can I convince them of the validity of my viewpoint? What words and phrases can I use that they are already using, in order to make my words sound like theirs, and thus gain their attention and respect?
Third, what common ground can we find in format? Can we agree that any comments that deviate from the discussion topic are not worth wasting our breath? Can we agree that all sides may be uncomfortable with the other’s opinions, and that quips and jokes are made out of a need to protect ourselves? We’re emotional and social creatures, and we need to embrace it — including our existing and all too human limitations.
Admittedly, there’s still a lot of growing to do. Creating a change in the way we speak with one another is a long-term process, which can get lost in the business of everyday life and the plethora of frontal lectures and online haranguing; and being human, it’s easy and intuitive to laugh at off-color memes and jokes. My Club is currently planning more activities in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and there’s lots of room for growth and for others to take up the mission.
Like Shabbat and the holidays we celebrate every year, the upcoming elections are a great reminder of the values and ideals we (should) strive to uphold every day of the year. The day after Election Day will be as difficult as the day itself, when compromise has to be made across differing opinions; that same hold true for us citizens, as we’ll return to work after having the day off and have to sit alongside people who disagree with us. How we decide to talk with one another is our own Election Day, which we have the chance to celebrate every day.