Finding a way – Community conversation focuses on navigating difficult topics

June 2022 Posted in Community, Events & Holidays

By Melissa Wagoner 

When the Silver Falls Library District held a strategic planning session in the fall of 2021 Director Christy Davis discovered a need that had very little to do with books. 

“Quite a few people have reached out to me from the community – leaders and everyday citizens – expressing concern about the polarization that they are feeling, the rising tension, their growing sense of disconnection with people who have different opinions,” Davis recalled. “They’ve said they have no idea what the library could do but maybe it could think of something?”

And it turns out Silvertonians are not alone. Across the state rural communities are experiencing a surge in discord and polarization, so much so that Oregon Humanities – a non-profit whose mission is to aid communities in hosting difficult conversations about vital topics – set aside $24,000 in funding last year so that public libraries could host their own conversations exploring the past, present and future of both the state and the nation. 

“I worked with local clinical psychologist Andrew Weitzman to have him address this theme through the lens of trying to develop a language of common ground over the many issues that divide our community…” Davis said, describing the proposal she and Dr. Weitzman submitted to Oregon Humanities’ mini grant committee, which eventually awarded them funding for a one-day event coined, “The Middle Path”.

“She approached me about…the concept of dialectics,” Weitzman said, defining the term as a method of “…finding synthesis between two seemingly opposing viewpoints.” 

But establishing commonality does not always lead to a compromise.

“(T)hough it can often lead to that,” Weitzman said. “Instead, it acknowledges inherent differences as unique unto themselves and…as inherently valuable.” 

It’s an especially important skill for a clinical therapist to master but it also has a role in everyday communication. Which is why Weitzman believes this class – scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on June 30 at the Silver Falls Library – will be a helpful tool in furthering respectful public discourse.

“I would not be successful in helping people as a therapist if I was not able to understand the world through other people’s eyes or expected them to see them through my own,” Weitzman explained. “Instead, I can work effectively with people from a wide variety of backgrounds different from my own and help them to move forward with their goals…The fact is that we don’t have to all be the same in order to understand, connect with, and support one another.”

The key, Weitzman said, lies in finding at least some common-ground, some “middle path” as it were.

“(M)ost all people have needs for security/safety and love and support and want to be happy and healthy,” Weitzman explained. “When we focus on our commonalities versus those things that set us apart, we are more able to experience compassion, understanding, empathy, and connection.

“In contrast, when we see each other as different from, or not like us, we are more likely to misunderstand, feel disconnected from, or be adversarial with others. Through understanding and practicing dialectical principles, we can move closer to common ground and coming together and away from being divided and in conflict with one another.”

Which is precisely what Weitzman hopes to facilitate.

“My hope is that…people will walk away from this interaction a bit more able to understand one another and be a bit more equipped to work towards finding common ground with one another,” he said. 

“Through widening the lens of how we understand and approach others that may not see things the same way as us, the goal is that people may be better equipped to be a bit more tolerant and less adversarial with one another, as we work on coming together as a community with shared purpose.”

Open to all interested teens and adults, the event will include information about applicable psychological principles that help people better understand themselves and others and the provision of cognitive tools that can help people in interactions with those who see the world in alternate ways.

“Through learning new tools, participating in engaging exercises and conversation, I will work to guide an effective and safe way to talk about difficult subjects,” Weitzman said, noting that although participants are encouraged to push the limits of their own comfort, active participation is on a voluntary basis, and all attendance is valuable. 

“The more people that choose to attend from different backgrounds and values, the more engaging this conversation will be,” Weitzman pointed out, “so people from all backgrounds are encouraged to attend, and all perspectives will be respected.”

The Middle Path

A free community conversation led by Dr. Andrew Weitzman, a clinical psychologist, on the importance of finding common ground when navigating difficult topics. 

Silver Falls Library, 410 South Water St.

June 30, 6:30 to 8 p.m.

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