How to Break Through the Gender and Race Stalemates: 5 Methods

Does it seem like we’ll never find understanding between men and women?

Do you lament the patterns of disconnection, distrust and miscommunication between folks of different races?

Do you watch the same cycles as conversations make us feel further apart, less understood? Do you long for something more generative than “us vs. them” reactivity?

I’m finding hope in a surprising place: imagination. Do you watch the same cycles as conversations make us feel further apart, less understood? Click To Tweet

Too Sensitive?

Recently I was part of a mediation process on a college campus as a student expressed her frustration with several young men in her class. She said she’d never before felt so misunderstood, never experienced such condescension. She shared how, when she respectfully disagreed and gave a well-considered response in class discussions, they told her she was too opinionated.

Throughout her description of events, she tried to see the best in them, saying, “I don’t know if they intended to, but when they spoke that way, it made me feel this way.” Tears came to her eyes as she said, “And if I get frustrated with their response to me, they just tell me I’m too sensitive or I need to learn to take criticism.”

She didn’t strike me as a girl with an “attitude” or a chip on her shoulder. What I saw was a young woman who was very bright and unusually confident, who could politely but articulately speak her mind. I could see how the young men in the room didn’t know how to begin to understand her. I could see they thought she was kind of cool and wanted her approval. I could see they hadn’t been around many girls her age who were as honest or as interested in ideas.

I have been in similar situations (and sadly, the church, can be a regular setting for them). I was torn how to help her. In my desire to break the cycle of this kind of treatment, I wanted to tell her, “You just tell those boys this or that.” But I hesitated because I’ve never seen that work to bring about understanding.

So then I considered helping her understand the young men so she could speak their language to bring about peace: “See, when they do this, it’s actually because they feel this. Here’s how to navigate that. Here’s how to speak so they’ll hear.”

But, again, I hesitated. How will these young men learn how to understand themselves or understand women if women do all the work of understanding?

How can women invite men to speak their language so we can all be “bi-lingual?” How can men be encouraged to use language like hers: “I don’t know if you intended to but when you say/do this, it communicates this to me.” How can women invite men to speak their language so we can all be 'bi-lingual?' Click To Tweet

The college administrator in the room proposed ways forward: maybe the young men could read a particular book, or take a class. As I looked at these young men I had a feeling they weren’t too keen. As they heard the administrator use words like “marginalized” and “power” and “misogyny,” I saw these young men shutting down. If they already saw this as “us VS. them,” more information would not be the way forward. If they felt cornered they weren’t going to care about how others feel.

From Stalemate to Imagination

It felt like a stalemate.

Afterwards the administrator turned to me in exasperation and said “What resources would you suggest to overcome misogyny on college campuses?” My mind went to articles, books. My anxiety, anger and frustration built. Nothing seemed powerful enough to break the cycle!

And then words from one of my favorite ministry books came to mind:

Everyone’s pain is locked into the system, and everyone stays stuck together in a circular flow. Until someone frees themselves from the loop or someone else from outside the emotional circle intervenes into the feedback pattern, the chain reaction repeats and perpetuates itself…In periods of intense anxiety what is needed is what is most unavailable—the capacity to be imaginative.

How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems, Peter Steinke

What might it look like to set aside the problem-solving mode which grew from frustration and anxiety and instead engage my imagination? I began by asking, “How have I seen understanding take place in the past?”

Which brought to mind the work of neurologist, Curt Thompson, on imagination and his brilliant example of the prophet Nathan challenging David through story. While Nathan could have confronted with “You were wrong to kill Uriah and steal his wife!” he chooses to engage David’s imagination. As Thompson puts it,

[The] power of storytelling goes beyond the border of the story itself. It moves into the nooks and crannies of our memories and emotions, sometimes gently, sometimes explosively, revealing, awakening, shocking, calling. This is what happens to David, and his heart is revealed. He is caught off guard when the story brings his right hemisphere to life unexpectedly.

Anatomy of the Soul

I’ve always loved that way of seeing this story and in this context I saw a new possibility— Nathan’s story upended a power dynamic, helped a King understand the position of a soldier. If Nathan had come in with force—argument, accusation—it would have likely perpetuated the power dynamic. But instead he engaged the heart of the king.

How to Evoke Imagination

What could this mean for our conversations between genders or races which come to stalemates? As much as we’d like to think these misunderstandings and cycles of pain and anxiety only happen outside of the church, we find ourselves in them regularly in church staff meetings, choir rehearsals, small groups. In the church, sadly, we are no less reactionary or angry or anxious.

What might it look like for us to discover God’s imagination for human interaction? The trouble is that when we’re in a stalemate we rarely feel like using our imaginations. We want to debate ideas, argue with strong emotions, protect ourselves and react from our hurt and anxiety. To engage imagination costs us. It takes work to set aside our anxiety and anger. It takes courage to tell a story. And it can’t be a manipulative story. It only opens new possibilities when we let ourselves be seen. What might it look like for us to discover God’s imagination for human interaction? Click To Tweet

Ways to evoke imagination:

  1. Ask ourselves, as mediators: “How have I seen understanding begin in the past?” and “What moments have been significant for me in my ability to see through someone else’s eyes?”
  2. Ask those caught in a stalemate: “Imagine what it might look like to overcome this misunderstanding. What would it take?” and “Have you seen it before? What part have you played in the past to bring breakthrough and understanding?”
  3. Invite a third party to share their moments of insight. Ask them to share stories that communicate: “I remember being in your situation and here’s how I’m learning to break the cycle.” Or ask two friends or co-workers or a married couple who represent the two sides of this stalemate to share their stories of how they’re learning to listen and understand the perspective of the other. It will be most meaningful if they don’t gloss over the very real conflicts and misunderstandings.
  4. It’s become a cliche to ask “What would Jesus Do?” but he had a great way of breaking through cycles of anxiety. Imagine what he’d do if he were in the room. Would he take sides or would he ask a question to change the direction of the conversation? What would he ask to open minds to imagine how God sees the situation?
  5. Contemplative practices allow us to step outside of the conflict. Being in nature, resting, breathing give us new perspective. We can watch a bird in flight and remember that it has no thought for what seems so pressing and frustrating to us. It helps us enlarge our minds.

If these are crucial practices of living out our unity, how might we develop Christian leaders in the skills required for dreaming together as communities?

While we often equip leaders with content (preparing them to explain), how could we also equip them with emotional skills to differentiate from the anxious systems they lead? How can their development include developing these skills of imagination?

If we, as leaders, are called to draw people out of unhealthy reactive patterns, it’s only natural, especially when situations turn to race and gender, for us as leaders to also fall into those old roles and reactions. The best way we can prepare to lead such systems is to learn how to both be part of the system and speak from outside of it. (For me the best training has come from the work of Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke, both of whom acknowledge that any human organization is an emotional system.)

I’m seeing that mediation process in a new way, and while we haven’t yet resolved the stalemate, I’m returning to it with a renewed imagination of what could be. What stalemates do you find yourself witnessing? How can we see them in new ways and together imagine a more hopeful future?

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