Kindness Is a Skill: Practical tips for fighting a culture of savagery

Here is an excerpt from another brilliant essay by David Brooks for The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscriptions, please click here.

Credit: Nick Shepherd/Ikon Images, via Getty Images

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I went into journalism to cover politics, but now I find myself in national marriage therapy. Covering American life is like covering one of those traumatizing Eugene O’Neill plays about a family where everyone screams at each other all night and then when dawn breaks you get to leave the theater.

But don’t despair, I’m here to help. I’ve been searching for practical tips on how we can be less beastly to one another, especially when we’re negotiating disagreements. I’ve found some excellent guides — like “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable” by Daniel Shapiro, “The Rough Patch” by Daphne de Marneffe and “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker — and I’ve compiled some, I hope, not entirely useless tips.

[Here are seven sensible tips.]

The rule of how many. When hosting a meeting, invite six people to your gathering if you want intimate conversation. Invite 12 if you want diversity of viewpoints. Invite 120 if you want to create a larger organism that can move as one.

Scramble the chairs. If you invite disagreeable people over for a conversation, clear the meeting room, except jumble the chairs in a big pile in the middle. This will force everybody to do a cooperative physical activity, untangling the chairs, before anything else. Plus, you’ll scramble the power dynamics depending on where people choose to place their chairs.

The best icebreaker. To start such a gathering, have all participants go around the room and describe how they got their names. That gets them talking about their family, puts them in a long-term frame of mind and illustrates that most people share the same essential values.

Tough conversations are usually about tribal identity. Most disagreements are not about the subject purportedly at hand. They are over issues that make people feel their sense of self is disrespected and under threat. So when you’re debating some random topic, you are mostly either inflaming or pacifying the other person’s feeling of tribal identity.

You rigidify tribal identity every time you make a request that contains a hint of blame. You make that identity less inflamed every time you lead with weakness: “I know I’m a piece of work, but I’m trying to do better, and I hope you can help me out.” When tribal differences are intractable, the best solution is to create a third tribe that encompasses both of the warring two.

The all-purpose question. “Tell me about the challenges you are facing?” Use it when there seems to be nothing else to say.

Never have a meeting around a problem. If you have a problem conversation you are looking backward and assigning blame. If you are having a problem conversation you’re saying that one episode — the moment the government shut down — was the key to this situation, rather than all of the causes that actually led up to the episode. Instead, have a possibility conversation. Discuss how you can use the assets you have together to create something good.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and the forthcoming book, “The Second Mountain.”

“Negotiating the Nonnegotiable”, Daniel Shapiro, “The Rough Patch”, Daphne de Marneffe, “The Art of Gathering”, Priya Parke, “The Road to Character”, “The Second Mountain.”

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