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Curiosity and stories help build relationships

Rachelle Strawther

Curiosity can be a key tool for building bridges with people who have different opinions, said Rachelle Strawther, an advisory board member for the Gonzaga Center for the Study of Hate.

She spoke on "Connection, Curiosity and Stories: Tools for Understanding and Opening Hearts and Minds" at the International Conference for Hate Studies in November.

As Rachelle pointed out, political divisions in the United States are now so extreme that they can lead to conflict within families and regularly result in combative exchanges on social media.

"Our country has never been more divided," she said, citing a 2020 survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research that says political polarization among Americans grew more rapidly in the last 40 years than it did in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia or Germany.

A 2019 Pew Research Center study said division and animosity between opposing political parties has deepened since 2016, with more people seeing those in the other party as "immoral."

"With each party seeing the other as immoral, the idea of uniting to solve the nation's problems can seem hopeless. That's why many of us spend our time, energy and money campaigning for political candidates and proposed laws that align with our values," she said. "It feels like the only way we can enact real change."

The challenge, Rachelle pointed out, is that laws, policies and structures can easily be dismantled. For example, beginning in January 2017, Trump made sweeping changes to environmental and human rights policies, some of which had been in place for decades.

While some believe that enacting laws is the best way to bring resolution, Rachelle, who frequently speaks on this and other topics in the region, suggests that we must also work on the underlying problems.

"We can't shy away from that critical work that will determine whether those laws and policies remain for years to come or will be swept away the moment a new leader comes to power," she said. "That's why I think the critical work is this: opening hearts and minds, including our own."

Rachelle, who serves as the director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at Gonzaga University, is passionate about this work.

After graduating from Western Washington University in 2004 with a degree in anthropology and social studies, Rachelle worked eight years in Kisumu, Kenya, coordinating community programs for women and children affected by HIV/AIDS and leading a youth organization.

"Sometimes we in the Western world move quickly to forming judgments and trying to solve problems," she said. "In Kenya, I was guilty of that. It took me years to learn to set my assumptions aside and look at things with a more open mind."

After returning to the U.S. in 2013, Rachelle earned a master's in communication and leadership at Gonzaga in 2016 and a doctorate in educational leadership in 2020. She was director of Leadership Training and Development in Gonzaga's School of Leadership Studies from 2018 to 2021.

She described the challenge of discussing political issues with her parents, whose viewpoints are significantly different from hers.

"In the past, those conversations never went well," she said. "We were both trying to prove that we were right, and we would usually become argumentative. I got to the point where I avoided political and religious conversations with them completely. It wasn't worth the energy."

As Rachelle began learning how to have compassionate, yet courageous conversations, she realized that she had been going about discussions the wrong way. Like many people, she had used facts, figures and statistics to debate with others, thinking that information is the best way to change minds.

It became evident—both through research and experience—that logic and facts can actually push people away and make them more defensive.

Instead, Rachelle has been learning to start with curiosity as a means of building rapport and setting assumptions aside.

For example, she said People's Action uses a highly relational approach to discuss controversial political issues with people. A 2020 article in The Atlantic said members of the organization go door-to-door and make phone calls to people in rural, low-income communities to influence their voting. They have real conversations that focus on building rapport through authentic listening. This approach leads to heart-felt conversations on issues that can be the start of a shift in opinion. According to People's Action, this approach is 102 times more effective than traditional campaign efforts. 

Rachelle also gave the example of Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi and founder of the Free Radicals Project, a global network of people working to prevent extremism and helping people disengage from hate groups. He said: "The return journey is never accomplished through heated ideological debate or argument." Instead of using shame or judgment to change people's minds, he works hard to earn their trust and listen with empathy.

From her own life, Rachelle described a conversation with a family member around their differing opinions about comprehensive K-12 sex education. In the past, she would likely have attempted to change the person's mind with facts and data. This time, she started by seeking to understand the other person's perspectives.

"Rather than refuting what they said, as I used to do, I asked, 'Can you say more about that?' Their response helped me better understand where their viewpoints came from. It prompted me to listen rather than just argue my side of the issue," she said.

This approach allowed them to have a respectful discussion in which the person admitted being unaware of things. Then they found a stance they agreed on.

To open hearts and minds, Rachelle suggests demonstrating curiosity without judgment, instilling empathy by sharing personal stories, showing vulnerability through the openness to being wrong and seeking points of commonality.

"I believe that we can bridge divides through conversation, one by one. What if, instead of firing off a comment on Facebook filled with facts and figures, we start by asking open-ended questions to understand why the person holds that belief? Every time we replace shame, blame and judgment with curiosity, we model a different way of behaving, a true civil discourse," she said.

Does Rachelle think this type of approach will change everyone's minds?

"Absolutely not," she said. "If someone is not willing to engage in a respectful manner, it's not worth the energy to try."

She believes, however, that conversations rooted in curiosity and empathy can be "the beginning of an imperceptible shift for many individuals, when the heart becomes open to the possibility of looking at something in a different light.

 "We never know what can come from that kind of conversation," Rachelle said, "and that gives me hope."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2022