Facilitating Constructive Discussions of Sensitive Topics During Divisive Times

Energy Medicine and the Politics (Politeia) of Health

“Politics” is derived from the juicier Greek word, “politeia,” which implies an active engagement in which people empower each other to enhance their communities. – Jean Houston

“The Earth is what we all have in common.”

—Wendell Berry

5th of Series

If you didn’t read the earlier installments, we suggest you start here.

Facilitating Constructive Discussions of Sensitive Topics During Divisive Times

David Gruder, Ph.D., DCEP

We are all witnessing the mounting difficulties in the capacity for civil discourse. These have been significantly contributing to distress in personal relationships, in the workplace, in communities, and on the political landscape.

In this era of hyper-divisiveness, energy healing practitioners can bring invaluable skills for equipping the public on how to have transformational discussions about sensitive topics. The readers of this e-letter already know a wide range of energy methods that help people soothe their nervous systems and come to terms with distressing events.

So, instead of focusing on those in this article, I will offer a relationship repair and collaboration enhancing framework inside of which you can provide energy techniques to assist the process in moving forward well. What follows is an outline of my psychoeducational framework for equipping people to have constructive discussions about challenging issues.

A Comprehensive Problem-Solving Formula to Replace Polarization & Divisiveness

I have been finding that a straightforward four-step process consistently decreases divisiveness and increases problem-solving success. I call it SUSS, as in the slang expression of "SUSSing." To SUSS something out means to get to the bottom of a dilemma. In this case, SUSS is an acronym for State, Uncover, Synergize, Select.

For the procedure to be effective, one basic condition needs to be met. Before starting the SUSS procedure, all who will be involved in the discussion must agree that they will seek to appreciate everyone else's deep concerns, high intentions, and hierarchy of values. In other words, an openness to the possibility of discovering a Noble Purpose beneath the other’s surface positions and advocated solutions must be assured.

Of course, not everyone will agree to this. The previous two articles in this series, by Jean Houston and Anneloes Smitsman, respectively, address the larger issues of establishing a culture of “politeia.” Social forces can be mobilized to make cooperation the only viable game in town, and our world is certainly crying for that right now. It is not, however, this article’s ambition or scope to unpack the complexities involved in getting Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden to recognize the “Noble Purposes” in one another’s positions.

What can be achieved by the method is nonetheless greatly needed and widely applicable. It is in potentially heart-breaking situations among friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues that the SUSS process could make all the difference. These are more than abundant, and they are the focus of this article.

The Steps

While the SUSS process can be applied to political discussions, the focus here is on disagreements calling for solutions that impact the people involved. Once the agreement to be open to recognizing one another’s Noble Purpose has been achieved (and this in itself may require some nuanced explanation and negotiation), each individual or group starts by disclosing their surface position and advocated solution. An attitude is cultivated that replaces attachment to being right with self-assurance that your not-yet-articulated Noble Purpose underlies your surface position and advocated solution. This is the first "S" in the SUSS framework: State.

Next, two things occur. Each side (from here forward, for the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to a person or group as a "side") initially reveals the Noble Purposes beneath (a) the information they believe to be true, (b) their surface positions, and (c) their advocated solutions. Noble Purposes include deepest concerns and highest intentions. Then, each side persuasively articulates the Noble Purposes of the OTHER side or sides, without commenting on what is or isn't fact, or on that side's surface positions or advocated solutions. This reflective listening further clarifies everyone's Noble Purposes and deepens everyone's appreciation of the entire range of Noble Purposes that are in play with the issue being discussed. As this conversation unfolds, someone should write down the list of each side's Noble Purposes where all can see it. I find that whiteboards or flip charts are very handy for this. Modifications to these lists are made as clarifications are provided while this step unfolds. This is the "U" in the SUSS framework: Uncover.

Third, all sides' Noble Purposes are combined to reveal a more complete picture of entire range of what needs to be included in crafting a viable solution to the issue at hand. Doing this brings into focus any questions needing answers or data discrepancies needing further research before comprehensive solutions can be considered. Once that additional information has been discerned, everyone brainstorms potential ways to achieve the entire set of Noble Purposes (deep concerns and high intentions) that were uncovered. This is the second "S" in the SUSS framework: Synergize.

Fourth, one of the potential solutions that have been brainstormed is selected. Which one? The one that, by consensus, is seen as best addressing everyone's highest intentions while mitigating everyone's deepest concerns (that is, having the lowest potential of creating unintended negative impacts). This is the final "S" in the SUSS framework: Select.

Once that selection has been made, all join together to craft an implementation plan and put it into motion. As that plan is carried out, it is fine-tuned based on the inevitable wrinkles that reveal themselves during implementation. The process of implementing and refining that plan occurs in ways that bring everyone even closer together in a sense of elevated meaning and unified purpose. This is what replaces divisiveness with love.

An Example Illustrating That the Process Is Simpler Than It Might Seem

Here's a real and somewhat humorous everyday example of SUSS in action. An adult daughter and her dog had moved in with her mother. The dog had fleas. The mother started lecturing her daughter about fleas being bad to have in a house and kept reiterating "my house, my rules." The daughter reacted defensively and rebelliously, insisting that fleas weren't a big price to pay for having the dog she loved and besides, she was an adult now and could do as she pleased. Before long their conflicting philosophies about fleas and authority reached a polarized impasse, and they had no idea how to get beyond it. So, they sought me out.

Finding out the above information about their polarized surface positions when we met was Step 1, State, in the SUSS process.

I next moved to Step 2: Uncover. I started by inviting the mom to look beneath her position about fleas. I did this quite simply by asking her what she wanted to get through the position she was taking – what outcome she was seeking. This got her beneath her lecturing to a simple statement: "I require a flea-free house." I didn't stop there. I then asked her what having a flea-free house would result in. It was then that she hit bedrock: she had extremely uncomfortable reactions to flea bites. I then asked the adult daughter to say back to her mom what she understood her mom's deep concern was. The mom became visibly relieved as the daughter accurately paraphrased what her mom had disclosed.

I then drilled down beneath the daughter's position about fleas. I did this quite simply too by asking her what made fleas no big deal to her. This got her beneath her defensiveness to a simple statement: "My dog has become an important a source of comfort in the aftermath of my divorce, and my dog's fleas don't bother me at all." I then asked the mom to say back what she understood her daughter's highest intentions. The daughter became visibly relieved as her mom accurately paraphrased what her daughter had disclosed.

We then went on to Step 3: Synergize. I helped them identify a wide range of potential ways to honor the mom's deep concern and the daughter's high intention. As they brainstormed, I built a Decision Tree on a flip chart that listed all of their potential solutions. They started at the top level: the daughter stays, the daughter leaves, or the dog leaves.

We mapped out what would happen if the dog left: either adoption or being put down. Neither the daughter nor her mom wanted either of those options. We then mapped what would happen if the daughter left: she wouldn't be able to pay her bills while she was getting back on her feet after the divorce. Neither the mom nor the daughter wanted that.

We next mapped the dog staying: the initial options were outdoor dog or indoor dog. They ruled out the outdoor option. It was then that they saw their best win-win option: the dog stays as an indoor dog who gets flea baths (both were allergic to flea bombs and the dog was allergic to flea medicine, so those options were not viable). I know this solution sounds obvious but they honestly couldn't see it when they were locked in philosophizing and power struggles.

They then looked at ways the dog could get flea baths: daughter gives, mom gives, the shop gives. Neither of them wanted to give the flea baths, so that left the shop. But who would pay? The daughter, the mom, or both of them? The mom wasn't willing to pay, and the daughter couldn't afford the full cost. In the end, they agreed to share the cost. Not as a compromise, though.

And that is because, by this point in the process, the mom wanted to contribute since she had owned that she was the one who was super-sensitive to flea bites. And the daughter wanted to contribute because she wanted her dog to be an indoor dog. So, their final selection was reached in a lovingly collaborative way rather than through coercion or compromise. This was Step 4: Select.

The point of building that Decision Tree was to help them clearly see that they were self-responsible choice makers, that neither was helpless nor were they at each other's mercy. There is a virtually limitless number of ways a Decision Tree can unfold, depending on the nature of the issue being discussed and who is involved.

The Range of Applications

I have used this same process to successfully help groups deal with ideologically contentious topics. I have facilitated fruitful conversations on:

  • Divisive Societal and Political Issues, such as liberals vs. conservatives, conspiracy advocates vs. conspiracy skeptics, pro-vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers, pro-Trumpers vs. anti-Trumpers, and those who discount vs. those who are sensitive to various other “isms.”
  • Business Challenges, such as decision-making disagreements between executives and implementers, turmoil over whether or not to sell a business, and confusion over how to bring the next generation into leadership in a family business.
  • Couples and Family Conflicts that have resulted from compromises about any number of issues and have only built up ever-increasing resentment and distance over time.

I have applied the model in the context of leadership groups, corporations, small businesses, men’s groups, and among close friends. I have used it with a group of ambassadors to the World Trade Organization, and I am currently in the process of arranging to use it with groups of people who hold national and state political offices.

The bottom line is that I have yet to find a context or an issue in which SUSS can’t be used productively . . . again, as long as those involved are willing to talk at the level of Noble Purposes. But that leads to the question I am asked at every presentation I do on SUSS:  What about someone who is unwilling?

When to Use SUSS and When Not to Use It

If getting into a fist fight with your brother-in-law over whether an election was stolen seems imminent, SUSS might not be applicable in that moment. It is beyond the scope of the SUSS procedure if either side is unwilling to take into account any point of view outside their own. But before you give up, consider that it may be possible to create conditions where SUSS will be effective. In fact, in some situations, it might be the most promising tool available. What if Grandma intervenes with the feuding uncles by saying, “Family unity and harmony is the most important consideration right now, and the two of you are blowing it! For the family’s well-being, I want each of you to agree to being open to discover the other’s deep concerns and highest intentions.” From there, Grandma can use her authority and wisdom to facilitate the entire SUSS process. Then the family can go on to enjoy the Thanksgiving dinner with bonds among its members having deepened.

Closing: A Caveat, A Challenge, and an Invitation to Energy Healing Practitioners

In closing, I want to provide an important caveat, offer a challenge, and issue an invitation.

The caveat is about attempting to use the SUSS approach with people who are not open to the possibility of a Noble Purpose in the other. For discussions to restore closeness and enhance collaboration, all who participate must simply be willing to authentically appreciate and take into account the higher aspirations of others. Said another way, SUSS is only for those who are willing to divulge, appreciate, and synergize the Noble Intentions of all involved in the conversation. An earlier article in this series referred to Joseph Campbell’s observation that while all mythological systems direct the "expansive faculty of the heart" toward the in-group, they deliberately direct "every impulse toward violence" at the out-group. It characterized this as an “archaic but dominating myth” that must be transformed “if humanity is to survive.” That is a big picture objective, and an important one, but it may not be possible in every situation to take advantage of the SUSS model.

The challenge I want to put forth is that if we as helping professionals who are trained in energy methods aren't leading the way out of the divisiveness and polarization that is ripping apart couples, families, communities, and countries, who will? Before getting too far into the process, Grandma might lead the entire family through the “four thumps,” the “blow-out,” and the “Triple Warmer Smoothie.” Methods are available to calm the nervous system, turn off the primitive brain’s fight-or-flight strategies, turn on the vagus nerve’s social engagement system, and ultimately heal the effects of unprocessed trauma. David and Donna’s book, The Energies of Love, offers a multitude of such methods.

My invitation to you is to master facilitating SUSS and integrating energy methods into that process whenever an opportunity appears. The world needs you now more than ever! For every family or friendship that uses SUSS to find a high road paved with recognizing their own and the other’s noble intentions instead of reflexively taking a turn onto the road of divisiveness and acrimony, the world becomes a bit safer. And at least two more players on the human stage have found their way into connection and collaboration where the walls dividing them had previously seemed insurmountable.

Dr. David Gruder, PhD, was ACEP's co-founder and first president. He is a clinical & organizational development psychologist and bestselling 12-award-winning Human Potential Strategist, Culture Architect & Business Lifecycle Psychologist, who was named America's Integrity Expert by Radio-TV Interview Report. Having written, contributed to, or been featured in, 26 books, he has also been featured multiple times in Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, and Nonprofit Performance magazines, in addition to hundreds of other media and podcast interviews. His mission is to catalyze Self-Sovereignty That Serves Us All & Governance That Serves Self-Sovereignty™, through providing keynotes, training programs, consulting, and mentoring worldwide. Read his perspectives on the future of humanity here: www.DrGruder.com/RevisioningHumanity

Editor’s Note: Our long-time friend, Kirk Schneider, Ph.D., who is currently an APA  (American Psychological Association) presidential candidate, has written an excellent book on the topic of the above article:  The Depolarizing of America: A Guidebook for Social Healing. Here also is Dr. Schneider’s innovative, visionary Presidential Platform.

Next Month: In discussing with Dr. Gruder these practical strategies for enhancing constructive dialogue across vast divides, we were taken by his understanding of the critical turning point humanity is facing. We asked him to write a follow-up article that articulates this understanding, with a view toward actions you might consider for fulfilling your unique role in helping your hopes for humanity’s future unfold.