A few weeks ago, I was working a phone bank supporting progressive candidates. One guy started our conversation with, “I would never vote for a Democrat in my life.” I asked him why and he told about a bill that Jerry Brown signed into law that “Ruined my business!” I said, “That makes sense” and asked him to sell me on the Republican candidate. We talked for twenty minutes, laughing a lot, teasing each other. At the end, he asked, “So, you gonna vote Republican?” I said, “Not a chance!” We laughed a little more and hung up.
This was my most successful call because we connected as human beings across political lines. Treating someone else as a human being should be easy but I’ve found, in my work at a teacher, a consultant and a medical clown, it takes practice and skills to ask good questions, be quiet and acknowledge the other person in ways that build rapport.
Here’s a section from The Snow Clown that looks at this idea. The protagonist is at the University of Nebraska and he’s just performed a monologue playing his father’s ghost talking about his suicide.
I PICK UP THE METAL CHAIR and sit down. The theater is silent. It’s Monday morning, I’m on my third week here and determined to let the students talk first. A full minute passes.
Another minute. Nebraskans are Olympians when it comes to silence. They win.
This is a literature class so I say, “Have any of you read…” A short young woman in a red tracksuit sporting a blond bouffant, interrupts, “Did your daddy really kill himself?”
I have learned enough to just answer the question, “Yes.”
“How old were you?”
“I was eight.”
“Thanks.” I let the silence sit, resisting the urge to try to talk about theater or literature. Eventually the young woman says, “My daddy died when I was 15. Cancer. He was sick a long time.”
“I’m sorry about your father.”
A friend hands the young woman a tissue and we’re quiet for awhile. Eventually, a huge guy, who I assume is a lineman on the Cornhuskers, raises his hand and, when I nod to him, he says, “My grandpa was in the war.” His bass drawl is from the Deep South. “World War Two. Infantry. He never talks about it, though.”