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Be curious, not judgmental to foster connection

It’s Thanksgiving, a time to remember the history of our country, from the time that English immigrants landed on Native American soil and feasted together in 1621 to 1863,when President Abraham Lincoln designated Thanksgiving as a national holiday at the height of the Civil War, and among other things, encouraged Americans to “heal the wounds of the nation.” How relevant to Thanksgiving 2016.


“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak;

courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

~ Winston Churchill


There’s no disputing that since the Presidential election, people are talking: “They, them, those people”, so much focus on the other (whatever that means to each person). And the response by some has been to demonize, to further divide, “us/them”, leaving most of us directly or indirectly exposed to heightened tension, name-calling, dismissiveness, finger-pointing, and acts of hatred, vengeance and violence. I have observed hurtful, attacking, relationship-altering exchanges online and in person, people “unfriending” or turning against people in their life whose opinions, desires, and fears differ from their own. In light of all of this, I have been paying careful attention to those who are making efforts to hear others’ experiences and views, not just demanding for others to hear them.

Many people have felt dismayed, in large part, to realize how little they understand other people whose values and views differ from their own. This is no surprise, given the comfort we create by surrounding ourselves with those similar in values, race, socioeconomic status, educational level, etc. While we are certainly entitled to our feelings and opinions, how can we dismiss or attack others for having theirs? We are missing tremendous opportunities to listen, to put ourselves in others’ shoes to try to understand where they’ve come from, what has shaped them, what their desires and fears are.

I am a proponent of assertive communication and it is something that I teach and model in my work as a Therapist. Assertiveness is expressing our ideas in an honest, direct way without judging, criticizing or attacking others and with awareness that we impact one another. So, while it is healthy to make ourselves known, we must also be willing to listen, and to listen with the intent to hear, trying to understand, not “listen” while we ready a reply. Most people don’t change their views in response to being lambasted, insulted, or otherwise attacked.


“The basic difference between

being assertive and being aggressive

is how our words and behaviors

affect the rights and well-being of others.”

~ Sharon Anthony Bower


In one of his many publications over the years (which are especially relevant in the present), my adored teacher and mentor, Philip Lichtenberg, Ph.D. writes “the best we can do is meet the other, coming from our own truth, and we can then hope that the other will want to become different if our truth has value and be ready ourselves to become different if we find otherwise. To meet the other is to be open in two senses – open about ourselves…and open to being influenced by the other.”

As we gather around the Thanksgiving table, or other gatherings this holiday season, I will be reminding myself of an always relevant directive from Walt Whitman, “Be curious, not judgmental” and I encourage anyone reading this to try it on: may we listen with open-minds, interest and curiosity. And the ability to do so is another thing to be thankful for.

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