As a professional human relations trainer for nearly 50 years and the daughter of a famous football coach, Kay Collier McLaughlin has learned the importance of intentionally listening to and talking with those who disagree with them.
Which brings us to President Donald Trump, the sorry state of American political discourse, and McLaughlin’s retirement project: Talking Together, a free workshop to give people the skills and understanding to do that.
“I know people like to think that all of this divisiveness is the result of the election,” she said. “But I see it as a punctuation mark to something that has been building for a long time. I don’t think people have realized until now how far we have gone off track.”
McLaughlin sees many causes: the “survivor” mentality of reality television, the 24/7 news cycle, the rise of hyper-partisan niche media, and the anonymous and often nasty culture of the internet.
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“Everybody lives in their own little world, and it often prevents us from talking across our differences,” she said. “Instead of looking for values that we share, everybody just digs their heels in at their starting place. We have to get past that.”
The goal of Talking Together is to give people skills to engage in genuine dialogue, with the goal of understanding. That’s different from discussion, which implies a process for reaching a decision, or debate, in which the goal is to win an argument.
“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “It’s a bunch of theories that have come together over the years that we have experience can produce some real change.”
McLaughlin’s Talking Together project grew out of a book she is finishing, and she developed it with help from a diverse team of local professionals. The first workshop will be Feb. 10 and 11 at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 West Second Street.
Frank Minnifield, a former NFL star and executive director of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame, is honorary chairman for the free training session. To register or for more information, go to Facebook.com/events/1721332481530584, or email McLaughlin at email@example.com.
“I think everything in my life led me to decide to write about this,” McLaughlin said. “Any time we have true dialogue — when people really, truly talk to each other and really, truly listen — that is sacred ground.”
McLaughlin, who lives near Carlisle, has a doctorate in counseling psychology and spent much of her career as director of communications and leadership development for the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington. She also has been a consultant for national church organizations.
As anyone who has been active in a church knows, it can be a hotbed of politics and conflict. Good communication and leadership are required. But McLaughlin traces her interest in the subjects to growing up as the middle daughter of Blanton Collier, the University of Kentucky’s head football coach from 1954 to 1961 and an assistant and head coach of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns for 16 years before and after that.
“Daddy was always an innate psychologist,” she said. “He was interested in what made people tick and in growing them to be the best people they could be. He was also very good at having in-depth conversations, which was sometimes uncomfortable as a daughter, especially if I didn’t want to talk about the subject.”
One trouble with political extremism, McLaughlin said, is that those who perceive themselves as “winning” often have little interest in dialogue. But winning and losing is fluid, she said, because “we elect the opposite of what we just had, and then we turn on them.”
McLaughlin encourages people interested in the training to bring a friend, relative or co-worker who thinks differently than they do.
“I think one of the saddest things was before the holidays, when people were talking about dreading going home because they didn’t want to talk about these things,” she said. “If we’re at that point in our families, where are we otherwise?”
Anxiety is the main emotion in polarization, and a lack of communication increases anxiety. Improving communication requires recognizing behavior patterns in ourselves and others rather than blaming, shaming and finger-pointing.
“It’s an interesting switch,” she said. “It takes a willingness to learn, and then it takes practice.”
After this initial workshop, McLaughlin’s goal is to host future ones herself and to train others to lead more.
“I don’t think it’s the only way to change the conversation,” she said of the Talking Together approach, which is based on decades of social science research across the human spectrum. “It’s simply a way we know has worked.”