By Kathy Berken
I just met Kern Beare. I will admit I didn’t know anything about this former Silicon Valley communications professional until last night. I helped facilitate a Zoom event where he presented the main points of his book, “Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together.”
After watching his 2018 TEDx talk, I found his natural talent to teach interpersonal communication and conflict resolution skills impressive. In his workshops, he uses story and psychology to help heal hurting relationships and unleash tools for creative collaboration.
In the midst of Advent as we prepare for the gifts of the heart that Christmas offers, I look to Kern’s teachings to help restore relationships that may have suffered because of the world’s myriad personal and social issues.
Kern’s bullet points are simple and yet challenging, so if we want a spiritual practice for the new year, I suggest his invitation to begin to heal our divisions. Here are some of his main talking points:
• First, “Acknowledge we’re all in this together.” Our motto in the L’Arche community where I lived and worked in Clinton for 10 years was, “We’re all in the same boat. Let’s keep it afloat.” When I think of the entire planet, I see all of us as one human race, dealing day to day with sometimes just survival. Let’s see ourselves as one piece of the puzzle and believe that we are wholly connected. If the pandemic teaches us anything, it certainly is this.
• Second, Kern tells us to “Prioritize the relationship over being right.” Well, this one is hard for those of us who love to be right! Sometimes, the toughest thing I have had to do is to let the other person be right and let it go because arguing hurts the relationship.
• Third, Kern invites us to “See beyond our story.” It’s about walking in the other’s shoes, putting ourselves right where they are, imagining life as they experience it so that we might understand what makes them think and act the way they do. My dear late friend Lee Nagel confronted me with this years ago after a long argument about some certainly important topic that eludes me now. He told me, “Can’t you just see this from my perspective for once?!” Wow, that was humbling.
After we set it aside for a while, we both agreed to articulate what we thought the other had said and what it meant. Of course, Lee was a champion on the debate stage. He said that to argue a point he did not personally believe taught him what his opponent was thinking and helped him to be more understanding.
• One final point that Kern made is to know the power of gratefulness. Creating the familiar “gratitude journal” might be one way to achieve this, especially for those who love journaling. Ironically, I’m not a journal-keeper. I prefer Lee’s method: get a notebook or daily calendar with lines. Write down the numbers from one to 10.
This gives you a simple structure to write one or two words on each line to express your gratitude. Or, count on your fingers and do the exercise mentally. Lee always said that if you say the same things every day, go for it! You are creating a habit. Kern would agree; gratitude moves our attitudes about our lives from ourselves to others, which he says is key to our mental health.
Cooperation is critical to healing the divides that separate us, Kern says. Taking any step to begin to heal division is a cherished Christmas gift for others as well as myself. That is exactly the point.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton from 1999-2009.)