Have you ever entered a conversation with the best of intentions, only to end up in an argument? I suspect we have all had this experience and I’d like to suggest that one reason this happens so often is because of mind distance. When we try to communicate with people whose experiences and world views are very different from our own, we often run into invisible walls. It’s like trying to describe colors to a friend who has been blind from birth. No matter how much we try to explain what the world looks, sounds, and feels like to us, if the other person’s experiences have been significantly different, they will have trouble listening and understanding. In my work as an interculturalist, I encounter such mind distance on a regular basis.
Dialogue, when done skillfully, is one way to reduce mind distance and I have seen amazing examples of this. I think the power of dialogue to promote empathy and understanding is why more and more people are turning to this form of communication to manage the many complex challenges facing us.
But dialogue by itself is not a panacea. Because mind distance is invisible, it can be much more challenging than many of us realize. For instance, in a recent online discussion that I witnessed, a woman expressed her concerns about the potential dangers for some Muslims if they engaged too openly in dialogue. Judging by her name and title, as well as her choice of words, she or her family were originally from the Middle East and she was very well educated.
A man, who openly identified himself as an American and a Christian, responded briefly, assuring her there was no danger as he encouraged her to trust in the power of dialogue. He seemed to be implying that she was thinking like a victim. Shortly thereafter, another woman—a young American to judge by her name and style—seconded the man’s opinion, glowingly praising the power of dialogue to create peace and understanding. I’m convinced both the man and the woman’s intentions were good, but they were unaware of the mind distance separating them from the first woman.
Luckily, another woman joined in, noting how the man and woman were not hearing the first woman’s very valid concerns. This woman suggested that people who have not experienced persecution first hand often do not understand what it’s like to be the member of a persecuted group. A bit later, the man acknowledged the wisdom of recognizing our own biases before judging others.
What struck me most in this interaction was that it was not a debate between Republican presidential candidates, but an online forum for facilitators and proponents of dialogue. When such caring, intelligent, well-intentioned people are blindsided by their own unconscious assumptions, should we be surprised by the current animosity and polarization in our communities and world? Are there any of us who are not susceptible to such unconscious biases?
Abraham Maslow famously said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. Dialogue by itself is not enough. Too many of us forget that safety, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. What may seem perfectly safe to you may seem terrifying to me. And yet a sense of safety is essential for us to open up and engage in authentic and respectful dialogue. When those of us who believe in the power of dialogue are unable to see how our own past experiences shape our perceptions and world views, our efforts at building empathy and understanding are more likely to fail. We must do better.
One powerful antidote to our own unconscious, biased assumptions is mindsight. When we understand better how our minds, both conscious and unconscious, really function, we gain the personal power needed to communicate more skillfully with those who are different from us. As we discover the unconscious assumptions that structure our perceptions and guide our behaviors we also learn to better understand those whose experiences are different from our own. For example, what did the Korean man mean when he said Americans were odd because we treat strangers like friends and friends like strangers? What were his expectations about loyalty and confidentiality that made the way Americans communicate seem so odd to him? Or how about the British man who complained that Germans were either at his throat or at his knees? What were his expectations regarding equality in a relationship? If we want to build better relationships and more inclusive communities, we need to understand both our own unconscious expectations as well as the expectations of people who are different from us.
Mindsight and emotional intelligence have always been important for a life well-lived, but they are becoming essential in the twenty-first century. Systemic forces such as the internet, mass media, and globalization are interacting with political conflicts and climate change to destabilize established borders and social structures. As a result, countries and communities around the world are being confronted with more and more people who see the world very differently than they do. The tide of immigrants currently trying to enter Europe is just one consequence of this destabilization. As more and more individuals and groups with different experiences encounter each other, maintaining safety and promoting understanding will be crucial for our common well-being. To do this we need new skills. When mindsight, emotional intelligence, and dialogue are combined skillfully, we have a formidable set of skills for constructing the more peaceful, just, and loving world so many of us are yearning for.