JANET M. POWERS
In recent weeks, we have seen two glaring examples of disaster stemming from the fact that people were unable to communicate essential needs to each other. The first, about which we’ve already heard way too much, was the Sandy Hook shooting, in which a young man, suffering from a high end disorder on the autism spectrum, built up so much anger against his mother, teachers, and normal children that he acted out his hatred with weapons. The second was the despicable charade put on by members of a Congress who never tried, or learned how, to talk across the aisle, as was common in years past.
We have to ask what has happened to our society that has resulted in these desperate moments of murder and fiscal irresponsibility? One sad fact may be that social media, while it allows us to tweet and text, does not encourage face to face conversation, where we can observe body language: a grimace, a shy grin, or eyes cast down in shame. Another culprit may well be the media. They have encouraged us to speak hatefully on talk radio and exaggerated the chasms between political parties and candidates in a hard-fought presidential election. Last but not least, we have become so tight-lipped as a people that we have forgotten how to laugh at ourselves – the best way to defuse hurt.
Because of his autism, the Sandy Hook shooter had built-in communication difficulties. But the parents of a normal young man involved in the Columbine shootings, said they had no idea what was going on with their son. Admittedly it is sometimes difficult to get teenagers to talk. They tend to be secretive, especially if they think parents are spying on them or enforcing rules too stringently. But it is important for parents not to give up, to keep expressing affection even when rebuffed, and to keep the communication channels open by making observations and asking questions in a conversational way – even with one-word answers.
I suspect that Tea Party attitudes have a lot to do with the difficulties in the 112th session of Congress. It was almost impossible to negotiate with people who came into office having signed a pledge not to raise taxes. Right off the bat they were stuck on a position and refused to acknowledge other possibilities. Fortunately, the House is very much a revolving door, which means that new people are coming in every two years. But someone with a ramrod attitude is not likely to reach across the aisle. Small group bipartisan mixers might be a solution, if older hands are willing to swallow hard and take the initiative.
One reason that mediation is so much more satisfying than relying on legal action is that it offers an opportunity to sit down and talk to the other party. Mediators are trained to deal with hostile attitudes or bring out needs that might otherwise go unexpressed. With or without a mediator, families should organize their own family meetings on a regular basis to deal with unmet concerns. Mediation is also an option for local governments struggling with irreconcilable views.