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Yvette Erasmus offers guidance for polarized families

November 10, 2018

Think you have it rough talking to certain relatives? Yvette Erasmus, 46, grew up in South Africa with a pro-apartheid diplomat father and a “strong revolutionary” mother. The couple eventually divorced, but not before their daughter learned how to be a “good girl” at the dinner table and avoid causing waves. Fortunately she’s grown out of that. Erasmus, of Edina, is a psychologist in private practice who also offers free training on the Nonviolent Communication process. There are few better people to tap for guidance postelection and pre-Thanksgiving than Erasmus, who offers tools to try at the turkey table and beyond. Family, she noted wryly, offers us the best training for reaching higher ground.

Q: Clearly, your desire to help people get along began in childhood. You didn’t have it easy growing up.

A: In the early 1980s in South Africa, we were experiencing heavy sanctions from the United States. We had military in our schools, white towns and black towns. Because my father was a diplomat, we also traveled a lot, including to Malawi and Germany. I attended 12 schools by 12th grade. I learned a lot of languages and about a lot of cultures. I’ve always wanted to help people be in dialogue together and bridge the gaps. There’s a little girl in me who wonders why we can’t love one another. What does it take to get us to stop turning on each other?

Q: That question carries great urgency in light of recent news of terrible violence. Have we hit rock bottom?

A: I hope we have, but I’m not convinced we have. We’re in a time of massive transformation; the ugly parts of our culture that we haven’t wanted to see are in our faces. If the rhetoric continues, the escalation of physical violence also will continue. People will feel justified in becoming increasingly violent. I’ve lived through it. I know what it’s like to descend into tribalism.

Q: You’ve also witnessed dramatic shifts toward goodness among people who might not have seen themselves making peace.

A: It’s a delightful surprise when you can shift stuck relationships by changing the conversation. Every week, I work with people who are choosing to empathize instead of argue. There are more openhearted people who want what is good for the world than loud people on a public stage with a mic. Many people want a significant shift that includes all voices. They’re tired of stridency on both sides. They know the tone needs to change.

Q: But they just might not know how to get there. Is that why you were drawn to the work of Marshall Rosenberg and his Nonviolent Communication model?

A: The model (cnvc.org) offers us tools we can use to practice feeling less polarized and more connected. The essence is listening with an open heart, looking for common ground and avoiding blame. It encourages us to ask, “What are we both going to bat for?”

Q: That sounds hard. Can you give an example?

A: If someone at your dinner table says something triggering about gun control or immigration, for example, lead with curiosity. Say, “I see that so differently. Tell me more about how you came to that conclusion.” Or, “I’m curious to learn what is really important to you about this.” And then genuinely listen to what is important to them. Look for bridges instead of counterattacks.

Q: And if what is important to them still offends you?

A: Gently express what is deeply important to you, or empathize with the deeper values they’re trying to serve. Don’t argue. You might say, “I feel some fear and concern about that perspective. I’m not sure it will get us to where we’re trying to go. Can we keep talking about this?” If emotions run high, offer understanding. “It sounds like you’re afraid these changes mean you will lose something so important to you. I get that fear. Change is disorienting. We are all looking for more security.” If trust is there, you might add, “I really don’t believe that’s what’s going to happen, but I can understand why this has a grip on you.” Follow with a personal story. People connect with human beings.

Q: You said something profound about grief, that we sometimes act out in anger and righteousness when, really, the underlying emotion is sadness.

A: There often is sadness and grief underneath our conflicts. People feel a loss of connection to family; the predictability they once had, the trust and understanding is gone. [Bestselling author and social worker] Brené Brown likes to say, “Stay with what’s vulnerable. Often, people will join you there.”

Q: And if they don’t, what’s Plan B?

A: Step away. Take a deep breath. Remember who you want to be. Live with integrity about what you stand for. Strive to be loving, curious, relational. Don’t lead with judgment.

Q: When people come to you in your private practice (yvetteerasmus.com), what do they want to fix?

A: They want to connect with others. They often ask, “What are the right words? Why do people react so defensively when I’m just being honest?” A lot ask, “Why do I get so angry? How do I stay grounded and effective when I’m so triggered?” They want to show up with integrity, sit together with differences.

Q: What kind of mental health breaks do you take?

A: My work energizes me, but I also enjoy being out in nature and hanging out with my 15-year-old daughter — when she lets me.

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