Healing with Dialogue
Election Year Strained Friendship

by Aaron Tebrinke with reflections by Shirley Johnson and J. Graham Thompson, LMFT

Aaron Tebrinke, our Multimedia Specialist, and Shirley Johnson have been friends since 2013. Aaron feared that their friendship was damaged by the general election last November. He was eager to try an exercise in contemplative dialogue with the help of facilitator Graham Thompson, marriage therapist, Dominican Associate, and JUST Words editorial board member. Shirley agreed. Here is a summary of their experience.

Shirley: First, I must say that I came into this experience not knowing what to expect. I was apprehensive because I know how emotional I can get over politics. I purposely came into the conversation with no expectations, which allowed me to be completely taken in by the process.

Aaron: I had high expectations based on my observations of sisters using contemplative dialogue practices, but I had a realistic fear that the relationship was too damaged to salvage.
Shirley: As the listener, I felt that I was truly hearing the heart of my friend for the first time. I heard his concerns, and I heard the impact that the general election had on him emotionally. I empathized with the inner conflict he experienced and understood the influence of his life experience on his decision. I was moved with compassion for him and for those he knows who felt scared and fearful of what might take place under a Trump administration. It was no longer for me about the debate. It became more about comforting a friend who was genuinely hurt and felt as though life as he knew it was quickly falling away and that there was nothing he could do to prevent it.

In some ways, I felt conflicted and responsible for what he was going through because I held the opposing viewpoint, which seemed to be what he felt was responsible for his feelings of “true fear,” “betrayal” and “loss of connection” to the way of life he has always enjoyed. I gained a better understanding of Aaron and an appreciation for his values and responsibilities to others. And I understood that it was his overwhelming feelings of isolation, powerlessness, and emotional disconnection that guided his vote.

Aaron: As the speaker, it was scary; I won’t lie. Being vulnerable enough to explain the origins of my decision-making process was not a pleasurable task. I felt I had to expose formative moments that were sometimes painful to revisit. One example was the conflicting messages I got from my father about respecting the law concerning the protection of the southern border—respecting the legal progress of immigration—yet also being guided to take in people in need without question.
Fear was my first emotion after the election. I felt the president-elect would minimize my power to speak freely.

I shared that my inner struggle came from a desire to protect people, to be a support to people, and to not feel powerless in the face of threats to our civil liberties. I shared the powerlessness I felt to help those close to me, and our shared feelings of powerlessness, fear, and anger.  

I explained my fear was not a fanciful fiction; the worst-case scenario was playing out before me in real-life,  and I was not able to stop it. The Republican presidential nominee pledged only he alone could fix the system, yet he was completely unprepared for the magnitude of the office. Even now the Executive Branch has barely any of the key roles filled and the senior level positions in the Pentagon and State Department are nearly empty as well.  Any mention of climate change was removed from the White House website hours after the new president was sworn into office.  They also removed any reference to civil rights or LGBT protections. Decades of scientific research was removed from the EPA page.

Shirley: As the speaker, I felt safe to express my viewpoint without feeling ridiculed or judged. I feel Aaron was able to see my perspective in a manner he’d not previously considered. I felt a release, because since the elections many friends have called into question my character and values; this was the first time I felt safe being honest, knowing I would be heard.

More importantly, I felt that Aaron heard my heart and my disappointment in a system I felt repeatedly failed me as an African-American. I felt validated in my convictions about my faith and my community, and respected for basing my political decisions on these issues. I also felt Aaron heard my frustration—frustration with the moral obligation to vote and the lack of real choices in candidates; my frustration that “throwing a dart” to decide something of this magnitude felt like the only option open to me. Finally, our dialogue ended with a feeling of comfort and freedom for me; the kind of comfort that can only occur when I truly feel heard.

Aaron: As a listener, I heard things I never heard from my friend before. I heard her desire for a genuine relationship, not just a superficial friendship. And for the first time, I heard clearly and without judgement, her reason for voting as she did. I heard her sadness, and how horrible it was for her to be reduced to a pessimistic state. She felt there were “really no choices” even though a choice was being demanded.

The most common thing we connected on was a sense of loss in being unable to speak freely and openly with all people we interact with daily. The alienation caused both of us to separately recoil inward.

This exercise made me listen more than I would in a political discussion. My logical mind was put on hold so my emotional side could hear what she was feeling instead of looking for imperfections to correct.  

Graham reflected: When one adds a person’s emotional context to the content of a difference, it moves people with differences emotionally close so they can listen with new ears and validate the other’s reality. The debate method we all learned in school promotes a “tit-for-tat” form of communication  where one argues only to “win.” This type of content argument usually distances people from one another and does not contribute to emotional closeness.

Debate locks you into the logic of your brain and will not let your heart impact how you listen to another.

  The  conflict managing technique  used for this exercise is promoted by the Gottman Institute, a marriage research and therapy organization, to support healthy marriages. Though Aaron and Shirley are not married or in a romantic relationship, this process helped them understand one another at an emotional level. They saw each other differently, in a way similar to how the disciples on the road to Emmaus had their eyes opened by Jesus.

Shirley Johnson is the Executive Director of Sangamon County Child Advocacy Center.
Aaron Tebrinke is the publication designer for JUST Words and Multimedia Specialist for Dominican Sisters of Springfield, IL.