From the Center

This viewpoint is from a writer rated Center.

As we begin this new decade with many of us looking toward bridging the divides that have become increasingly apparent in the last decade-plus, it is going to require a commitment to dialogical discipline that few people have ever embarked on. And to help foster this movement, a contingent of us are going to have to be willing to cultivate space within ourselves to hold conversations that function at a level that transcends the limits of the typical power dynamics that constrain most conversational systems.

Whether we intend them to or not, most of our conversations happen in frameworks that are upheld by socially accepted ranking systems. As the following example shows, when conversations happen in a context where someone holds a “higher social ranking”, it is virtually impossible to have the conversations we need to move our society forward into an age of cooperation and compatibility.

Speak up or Shut up

“I am going to make it my business to destroy your military career.”

These were the words that our new Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) said to me in the first attempt at a conversation we ever had just hours after I met him for the first time.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” he commanded I answer.

“Sir, I…”

“Shut up!” he interrupted. “I don’t want to hear a word you have to say. I can tell what kind of airman you are and I am not going to let you mess up my Air Force. I am writing you a letter of counseling (LOC), and it may become a letter of reprimand (LOR). And if I have anything to say about it, you will get an Article 15 and get sent back to wherever you came from.”

This was at least the third time he told me to shut up. So I knew that this person was so full of whatever had made him this reactive that nothing I said was getting in. I had been here before. I had been here many times in my 21 years. People with perceived power coming down on those who they thought had none. Voices of vitriol vilifying their victims simply because they could and because they were too cowardly to communicate any other way.

“Do you understand what that means?” he continued.

“Yes.” was my simple one word answer as I looked him in the eyes. He didn’t like that. Perhaps because the stoic nature of it was unsatisfying. Often when people are abusing another person what they are really looking for is a power fix. Putting someone down gives them a false sense of elevation. “If you are down, I am up,” would be a way of giving voice to this, often unconscious, way of establishing power dynamics. But I can only assume that because I didn’t give signs of receiving the shaming that he was projecting upon me, he felt the need to boost the signal.

“That means you will go home having embarrassed yourself and your family. And people don’t like hiring people who get kicked out of the military. So this is going to follow you for the rest of your life. Do you get that?”

I didn’t respond. I just stared. He didn’t like that either.

After a short but uncomfortable silence for him he asked, “Why are you just standing there? Do you even care? Say something.”

Not trusting that he wouldn’t tell me to shut up again, I decided to put a significant pause between each of my words only offering another one after I felt he received the word prior. In military parlance, I spoke with a certain cadence.

“Every (1,2,3)
time, (1,2,3)
I (1,2)
open my mouth (1,2,3)
you tell me (1,2,3)
to shut up (1,2).
So, I don’t (1,2,3)
want to (1,2,3)
talk to you.”

There was another awkward silence for him. And then he told me to get out of his office.

After I left the NCOIC’s office, a Tech Sergeant, who had, up to that day, been serving as the acting NCOIC asked me what happened. He wanted the whole story.

You see, when he was giving the new NCOIC a tour, they entered a tent where they found me sitting in a chair asleep with a Satellite Communications Technical Order (TO) on my lap in front of our new Lightweight Multiband Satellite Terminal (LMST) by Harris Corp.

When they came in, the new NCOIC, who I had never seen before that moment, asked me what I was doing. I explained that I was reading the TO so that, in the event any alarms went off, I might be able to figure out how to troubleshoot the issue.

“No. You were being a derelict. You were asleep and if this were a war, you could’ve cost the lives of your fellow airmen.”

“I was asleep?” I asked incredulously. I had no idea I dozed off.

“Yes. You were asleep. And that is what we call dereliction of duty. Go to my office and wait for me.”

Since I didn’t even know who he was, I let him know that I didn’t know where his office was and that the person who was relieving me hadn’t arrived yet. So someone had to be with the equipment. I was then informed who he was and where to meet him after my relief arrived. A couple of hours later, we had the aforementioned encounter.

In contrast to the NCOIC’s approach, the Tech Sergeant asked me why I was so tired that I couldn’t stay awake for my shift? And without interruption, he gave me the space to explain that I had actually been working for almost 15 hours when I apparently nodded off. After I returned to the office after my 12 hour shift, I was asked if I could go back and sit with the LMST because the person who was supposed to work it had called and said he was going to be late. Since I had not yet been trained on the LMST, I asked whether one of the people who had been trained would be better equipped to watch it in case there were any issues. But I was told that if I ran into trouble, I could use the TO to figure things out and I was ensured that I wouldn’t be out there long.

Three hours later, no one had come to relieve me and I was exhausted, hungry, and hot sitting in a tent in the Arizona sun. I thought that if I read the TO and got acquainted with the equipment at least I’d be learning something while I waited. But apparently adding boredom to the mix was what tipped the scale just enough for me to unknowingly doze off.

When I was done telling my side of the story, the Tech Sergeant asked some clarifying questions and let me know that he sympathized with me and asked if I explained this to the new NCOIC. I let him know that I wasn’t given the chance to and that I was receiving a letter of counseling and possibly worse according to the NCOIC. Hearing this, the Tech advised that I stay clear of the NCOIC and even though he wasn’t my supervisor, he told me to come to him if anything else came up for me. And that’s exactly what I did.

Some months later, the NCOIC didn’t show up for work. After several hours and many calls, the same Tech Sergeant was sent to check on him. The next day, the NCOIC called me into his office and showed me my file with the letter of counseling in it. He asked me to take it out and tear it up. He then proceeded to tell me that he was tough on me because he saw my potential. That was why he used “negative encouragement” to keep me on the right track. When he was finished, I simply thanked him for “believing in me”, tore up the letter and walked out of his office. That was pretty much the second and last attempt at a conversation while we served together. Other than that, we stayed out of each other’s way.

As you can imagine, the way he reacted in our first encounter had nothing to do with his prophetic awareness of my latent potential that could only be released by the power of his negative encouragement. Nor did his decision to tear up my letter come about as a revelation that I exceeded his original expectations of how I represented “his Air Force”. Rather, like the person whose shift I was covering when he first encountered me, he was terribly late because of a personal issue, that resulted in other people having to readjust. When the Tech Sergeant was sent to check on him and saw that he was not even prepared to come in to the office and had not let anyone know what was going on, the Techy reminded him of how he treated me and let him know that, unless he cleared things up with me, he would report the NCOIC. In other words, he responded to “negative encouragement”.

Owning the Conversation

Often in the conversations we find ourselves in, there is some form or ranking or power dynamics that is shaping the context in which we have our discourse. As a result, there is often a fear of potential loss on the part of at least one party embedded in nearly every conversational system. Think of every conversational partner you’ve had and reflect on the power differentials. Children to parents, boss to worker, enlisted to officer, police to other citizens, loaner to loanee, teacher to student, minister to congregant, doctors to patients. And, in the minds of some, this ranking exists between men to women, black to white, immigrant to citizen, cisgender to LGBTQ+, the wealthy to the poor ad infinity.

Almost everywhere you look in conversational systems, power dynamics are at play. And we wonder why it seems so difficult to create systems, processes, and policies that serve everyone fairly. It is because we don’t know how to converse courageously. To put it simply, conversational cowardice is killing this country. And unless enough of us put in the work to shift that, it is difficult for me to imagine this country making it another century.

I volunteer with Living Room Conversations (LRC) when I can precisely because I believe that their conversational model is designed to hold space for people from any walk of life to practice and engage in transformative conversation less constrained by the power dynamics that most of us have been enculturated into. Take for example that the conversations can be self facilitated and that the guides are open source. But, my favorite part of the LRC practice, are the conversational agreements that include this statement of responsibility:

“Own and guide the conversation - Take responsibility for the quality of your participation and the conversation as a whole. Be proactive in getting yourself and others back on track if needed. Use an agreed upon signal like the “time out” sign if you feel the agreements are not being honored.”

This agreement is a statement of equity--a concept that is severely lacking in our country, but very likely holds the key to us actualizing more of our potential as a nation of people in conversation with one another. In the “conversations” with that NCOIC, he felt like he was in charge. Therefore his interpretation of the events were what mattered. And any statement that potentially contradicted that interpretation terrified him because he was essentially enculturated to be a conversational coward, as many of us are, relying on rank to undergird the “rightness” of his position. Because of this fear, many of us experience our conversations as threatening. But just like anything else in life, the more you practice something, the more confidence and courage you develop in any activity.

If you find yourself conversing from a place of cowardice, be encouraged that there is an entire network of bridging communities to practice with. Everyday, more and more people are taking steps toward being conversationally courageous. And with every step one of us takes, the closer we get to that more perfect Union that we are aspiring to.

Pedro Silva is minister with First Congregational Church Boulder, UCC and a blogger at The Roofless Church and the It’s All in Me Poetry Blog as well as a volunteer with Living Room Conversations and other organizations that foster community building and the principles of equity.

This piece was reviewed by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter. He has a Center bias.