Learning to Engage in Deep Conversations

How a conflict management class awoke my interest in interfaith dialogue
MAY 2018
Biological Engineering

In the third year of my PhD, two things happened that dramatically changed the way I see the world: I took MIT's 40-hour conflict management course in my training to become an MIT REF, and Donald Trump was elected president. In their own ways, both opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing the world.

MIT's conflict management training gave me words and tools to describe and practice the things I already gravitated toward but hadn't known how to develop: empathetic, non-judgmental listening, calm and outcome-oriented negotiating, and preventing and addressing conflicts maturely. I learned to ask questions until I truly understood what was at the heart of the issue, rather than focusing on surface symptoms. I realized that so many times, what we think is one problem is actually a manifestation of something much deeper. While infinitely more difficult, addressing that deeper issue is so much more satisfying. Most importantly, however, I learned what it was like to listen to others and to truly feel heard. I was introduced to the concept that when there is conflict, anger, or sadness in a conversation, it's because someone's needs aren't being met. I started to recognize that in so many conflicts, the people involved actually want the same thing: to be seen, heard, and respected.

At one point in the training, our facilitator brought up Donald Trump. I couldn't help myself, and made a dismissive joke as a knee-jerk response. I don't remember exactly what she said, but our facilitator responded directly to me, re-interpreting my joke and pulling out the deep desire (for respect, for my conception of justice, for who knows what) that was really underlying my dismissive joke. I was totally floored and silenced - I, too, was hurting and needed that to be seen. After the election, I was weighed down by an incredible sadness, realizing that so much of our country had felt so unheard and so unseen that they voted for someone with the hopes of burning it all down, even if they got caught in the fire too. I wanted to take what I had learned in conflict management and expand it beyond my comfortable circle of graduate student peers - I wanted (and still want) to be the kind of person that could have conversations with people who have deeply different beliefs than me and make them feel seen. I wanted to know more about people who are different than me, and I wanted to test my ability to have empathetic discussions and build bridges of common understanding even in situations where we disagreed on the most fundamental things, like where meaning comes from and whether or not God exists.

Trump's win became the ultimate challenge, stretching my new worldview only months after I'd acquired it and motivating me to look past my established comfort zones and seek deeper connection within and across my communities.

I'd been intrigued in the sign advertising MIT's Addir interfaith dialogue group outside the Student Center since the first time I saw it. I was drawn to the idea of interfaith work, even though I'd had almost no experience with religion beyond growing up in Texas. The few times I'd encountered interfaith work had definitely marked me, though. There was the first time I teared up in a public setting at an interfaith Thanksgiving in Austin in 2007, moved by the gravity and humanity represented by the Jewish community stepping up to host the Muslim-led interfaith ceremony after the Christian church had last-minute backed out. There was the deeply Christian boy in high school who decided he couldn't date me because I didn't believe in Christ, and who through our conversations gave me a peek into what it was like to have faith and to seek to truly and deeply live by it in every way. Then there was the experience of reading passages from the Bible in one of my core classes in undergrad and watching as the fiery atheist battled with the two devoutly Christian students in the class. One student was deeply thoughtful and full of doubts and faith, the other reflected a shallow understanding of slogans pasted on the walls of churches. At the beginning of the section, the atheist thought Christianity and religion were the roots of all evils in the world. After a few weeks of thoughtful, informed debate, she realized that there wasn't anything inherently evil in religion, but it was the humans improperly carrying out the ideas that led to evil.

Also, now that I had opened my eyes to seeing the world through a conflict management lens, I saw that my own thoughts on faith and religion easily fit into a similar framework, and I wanted to explore that further. In conflict management, there's an important concept of positions and interests - positions are the stances you take, like "I want to have X days of vacation a year." The interests are what you actually want, the thing that lies beneath the position, like "I want to have a healthy work-life balance." Positions are just the way we carry out our true interests. I'd kind of already arrived at this realization about faith on my own, but now I had some vocabulary words to put to them: in most religions and faith traditions, it seemed to me like the interest is the same: make sense of our existences, give meaning to our lives, and provide community and norms for how to live. It's just that they differ in their positions, how they go about achieving those things. Also, in the Addir application one of the questions was about someone who we looked up to as a bridge builder. I put down the conflict management facilitator, and as I was writing my response I realized something amazing - she didn't build bridges, she makes the river underneath it disappear. I wanted to see if I could do that too.

So I joined Addir this year, participating in weekly one-hour interfaith dialogues with the same group of 8-9 students. In my group, we're about half and half grads and undergrads, but the program overall is about two-thirds undergrads. We start each session with a check-in and establish a space of honesty and vulnerability. For most of the fall semester, we went through our "spiritual autobiographies," describing what we believed and more importantly how we got there. For the rest of the year, each week's conversations revolves around one or two topics - for example, obedience, soul and consciousness, traditions, gender and sexuality, and religion.

I went into Addir hoping to find a place to flex my conflict management muscles, but it turns out that those skills haven't actually been very necessary. In retrospect, the things I've learned through my experience with Addir so far should have been easily foreseeable. I'd gone into these conversations hoping to find a place to attempt bridging some sort of unbridgeable gap - how could one truly have a pleasant conversation in a room where the 9 participants ranged fully along the spectrum of having deep faith in their God to absolutely having no belief in God at all? But it turns out that most people drawn to interfaith work share similar ideas to those found in conflict management, though not necessarily with the same words. I've found many reflections of the positions vs. interests discussion in our group, and it seems that most participants in Addir are really just there to better understand their own and others' underlying interests - the deeply held beliefs and what meanings they carry for someone - rather than focus on the positions or details. It turns out that most of these conversations are united by a curiosity for others and a willingness to see beyond presumably "irreconcilable differences", like, for example, believing in different (or no) gods. So while I am grateful for the experience that I've gotten through Addir - learning to engage in deep conversations on a regular basis, meeting other people in my MIT community, being witness to journeys of self-discovery and growth - I think I may have to look elsewhere to truly test out out my conflict management chops.

Which, if you ask me, is a pretty cool realization.