Talking About Gender and the Power of Dialogue
Gender issues have been making some serious waves these past few months. A woman from Columbia University joined college students around the country to make sexual assault on college campuses front-page news by carrying the mattress she was assaulted on around campus. Twitter conversations surrounding #yesallwomen and #notallmen, with over a million tweets, started a nationwide discussion in the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Santa Barbara. Most recently, these conversations have culminated in a video calling out the reality of catcalling.
The video, “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman,” has since garnered over 34 million views and sparked a national conversation with implications for race, violence against women, affirmative consent, and even gun issues.
Clearly, these subjects have hit a nerve across the United States and are starting discussions at every level of our communities. Some (like this Daily Show segment with Jessica Williams — be aware, this video includes strong language) have been incredibly well received, but many have also been full of fear and hatred. So it doesn’t just matter that these conversations happen – it matters HOW they happen. Just like every discussion where people feel forced to defend their identity or debate a belief or value system, these are the types of conversations that can go downhill quickly.
So let’s start thinking about what we can do to build a better conversation around gender.
Ask the Right Questions
First, we can learn how to ask questions that promote curiosity and connection between people. So far, I have seen people speak, almost exclusively, AT one another, instead of WITH one another. Rather than seeking to understand the experience of another person, these conversations have centered on one gender trying to convince another gender of the validity of his or her experience and personhood. A recent CNN segment exemplifies this lack of curiosity. Here are two things that were ACTUALLY said in this eight-minute segment:
Steve to Amanda: “I’m more of an expert than you, and I’ll tell you why: because I’m a guy and I know how we think…You would not care if all these guys were hot…they would be bolstering your self-esteem…There is nothing more that a women likes to hear than how pretty she is.”
Amanda to Steve: “You, as a man – what your problem is – is that you really should just be embracing and welcoming to the fact that women are saying, ‘hey, we don’t like this,’ not arguing why we shouldn’t. If we say we don’t like it, and we are demonstrating that, then you …should be saying, ‘then let’s discuss how you can feel more comfortable.’”
So often, we try to inform other people what they should think or believe, rather than asking them why they think as they do. We don’t seek to understand or fully appreciation another person as complex, beyond ideas of gender.
Work on Listening
Second, we can become better listeners. At Public Conversations, we call this “listening with resilience,” and after just two months working here, I love that phrase. It means going beyond jumping to your next defense or rebuttal to some horrific thing another person just said. Listening with resilience asks us to not just ask the right questions to expand the conversation beyond “yes all women” and “not all men,” but then to actually listen to what the other person tells us – even if it’s difficult to hear.
Finding a Common Humanity
We have spent 25 years developing a process to help people have such conversations in a way that they feel heard and understood, while at the same time seeking to hear and understand more about other people. When it comes to issues like gender – which can touch the core of our identities – we should use conversations as an opportunity to better understand this conflict and polarization. Dialogue doesn’t have to be about convincing someone or finding common ground – sometimes, it is enough to simply look for common humanity. And wouldn’t that be a great place to start?
If you want to delve further into these three tools to create better conversations, we welcome you to join us for an upcoming workshop where you’ll learn about our approach and have an opportunity to practice using it.
This blog post was originally published on November 7, 2014.