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Date: 01/01/2014
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Communicating our Concerns and Hopes

from chapter 10 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


Time: 30-45 minutes


At each step in our work for the world, we engage with other people. Many do not appear to share our concerns, but because of their relationship to us or their position of responsibility, we’d like to enlist their support — or at least their understanding. We often feel intimidated, assuming that they are opposed to our views. This role-playing exercise, along with the guidelines that follow, helps us to be more confident and skillful.



Have everyone assemble in pairs. Then your instructions cover the following points: Think of someone with whom you find it hard to talk about your concerns for the world and the actions you want to take. It could be your father or sister, your employer or lover, or even the President or the Secretary of Defense. Assign that identity to your partner along with some clues as to how to play the role and what responses this person might give. Partners, feel free to ask for clarification, and let your intuition guide you, too.

Then begin the roleplay: Speakers, tell this person what you see and how you feel, and what you feel impelled to do about it. Note any feelings of awkwardness, shame, or powerlessness that may arise, and continue nonetheless. Partners respond in your role, keeping your replies fairly brief, so the burden of communication is on the speaker.

After a few minutes, ask the pairs to reverse roles, the speakers taking on the identities of the persons they have chosen to address, and their partners taking up the role of speaker. This reversal of roles is revealing and productive, breaking through our old, automatic assumptions about the person we are addressing. We may experience their confusion and fear; we may see ourselves in a new light. We discover how we tend to lock people into adversarial positions by our presuppositions and projections, and our previous history with them.

Reversing roles back again, the conversation continues, but now the speaker is more aware of the inner experience of the person being addressed, and often feels freer to be themselves.

Generally, two rounds of role-playing take place, so that everyone has a chance to practice speaking to a person of their choice. In the general discussion following the role-plays, write up two lists from their responses to two questions:

  1. Why is it often so difficult to share our concerns for the world?
  2. What are some guidelines for communicating our view, especially with those we assume to hold a different opinion?


Here are some common difficulties:

  • We don’t want to get into an argument, especially with people who are important to our lives. 
  • We are afraid of triggering others’ anger or fear. 
  • We are afraid we don’t know enough facts to sustain our views.
  • We are afraid of appearing self-righteous or fanatical. 
  • We hesitate to talk about things that evoke strong feelings and opinions, because it’s considered bad manners.
  • We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
  • We are reluctant to get embroiled in heated and fruitless debates.


In this time, when our collective choices are so critical, how can we discuss our concerns productively? Here are some guidelines:

  • Beware of making assumptions about the other person’s views because they are a certain age, dressed in a certain way, come from a particular region, class, or ethnicity, or hold a particular job.
  • Find common ground before examining differences. If you begin by ascertaining areas of agreement (e.g. “Nuclear war is possible” or “We need clean air and water for our children”), both parties can trust each other more and proceed to see where their views diverge. Then offering the information that has led to your view can fill a gap in the other’s knowledge, and lead to reappraisal of old assumptions. A person may simply not know, for example, about the extent of clear-cutting in the Pacific Northwest in the US, or the current level of expenditures on nuclear weapons.
  • Share feelings as well as facts. Facts are debatable; feelings are not. We can report our own feelings with varying degrees of accuracy and honesty, but they are not open to question. Sharing your feelings invites other people to share theirs as well, moving the conversation away from argument and towards mutual listening.
  • Share your personal experience. The facts and figures we cite take on more reality for people when we describe what led us to the views we hold. Personal experience, like feelings, is not open to debate.
  • Trust the other person’s ability to learn and change over time. Even if the person seems entrenched in a contrary position, change may be stirring within. And you may never know if change has occurred as a result of your discussion, or what other information the person may receive from others to add to yours.
  • See yourself and the other within the larger context: your shared humanity, the stresses of the Industrial Growth Society, the long, uneven journey to a life-sustaining culture. This breeds patience and goodwill.


Remember to hold the other person and yourself with compassion, even when you seem to find no common ground. We can never know what suffering and hardship might underlie another’s seemingly intractable position. You can “agree to disagree” with a measure of goodwill.

Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown