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‘What do you mean by that?’ to the rescue

It started with a question. A man named Alan turned to a woman named Jamie — both of them locals in Edmonds, Washington, who’d signed up to try disagreeing curiously with each other in front of a roomful of their neighbors — and asked her to share what concerned her about something he supported: stationing police officers in schools. “My concern?” Jamie said, putting her hand on her chin to think. “I think it’s… it’s… it’s fake safety.” Watch the video of that moment and what you see is Alan nodding, me nodding, journalist Teresa Wippel, who’d put this amazing event together, nodding. But what I felt immediately in the room, and heard in the low murmurs from the crowd, was tension. Alan, we’d learned, had been one of these “school resource officers.” It was clear to all that he believed he and his colleagues had put in a good bit of effort providing very real safety at their assigned schools. So what would Alan say next? Sitting to the side of Alan and Jamie, I cycled through scenarios in my head. “Fake safety,” like many sudden names or labels we use to sum up both an idea and how it feels to us, can pack a punch when presented to someone who disagrees with its premise. Would Alan take it as a dismissal? An accusation? Something worse? I’d invited them to ask each other questions of experience and concern without judgment and knew just what Alan could ask to keep the conversation curious. But would he? I didn’t stay in suspense for long. “What do you mean by that?” Alan asked Jamie, calm and genuine, after just four seconds. I was so instantly relieved I could have hugged him. (Luckily for the rest of this fascinating exchange, I held it together enough to just squeak out a quiet “Great!” into my mic, give a thumbs up, and reach for my water.)

Invited to elaborate on her own terms, Jamie talked about how the things that many schools do to try to keep kids safe, in light of terrible recent school shootings and conversations she’s had about the complicated relationship some people of color have with police, just didn’t seem effective to her. “I want it to be real!” she assured Alan. “I want somebody to come in and shut the door to that guy in Uvalde. I think that a lot of police officers — you guys are human — and that’s hard.” The power of Alan’s question came down to this: Instead of accepting whatever came to his mind about what Jamie meant by that punch of a phrase, and allowing those assumptions to make him instantly defensive or hostile, he recognized what he didn’t know and went after it.

— Moni

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