Doing Dialogue

The Forest for the Trees

May 12, 2017

Culture and communication are not conflicting entities. Yet in the theater of life, words and intent can often cause dramatic divisions between people and groups. In training, actors learn about this intent, leading to questions for a director such as, “What’s my motivation?” Knowing a character’s history, triggers, inclinations all play a role in promoting character nuances the audience can connect with. That’s drama. And the world is full overlapping and repeated scenes, brimming with the potential for even more conflict. Effective communication can be very difficult when there’s noise.

At the intersection of the packed scenes in our lives, and the layers of conflict and drama, is the potential for understanding. The noise from all sides, and the actors who stand behind it, hide from it, even use it as a shield, are forever more stuck in their roles. It’s said that in Shakespeare, disguises always work. That may be true for some, but the reality is that our own histories, singular and collective are too often misunderstood even by ourselves. No wonder it’s normal and natural for us, even as intelligent mammals, to respond with hostility, shame and confusion to cues that mark us as ‘different’ or ‘other’.

A forest is a collective of billions of entities, each with their own role, from microbes to animals, seedlings and majestic trees. No audition, no casting call, just placed on a stage. We as the audience might observe with respect, honor, even boredom and sadness. The trees are by default the main characters in this play, each with their own particular story of uncommon memories stored and recessed, inside their thick jackets.

The beautiful thing for us, is that we get to sink into the stories of the trees because we know that deep down, we communicate on a cellular level. A bad day at work. A barista with an attitude. Siblings that won’t stop fighting. A refugee with a tragic story. A group torn by ethnic cleansing. Estranged parents. A child, lost.

In Japan there is the practice called shinrin-yoku (森林浴), or forest-bathing. Americans might call it, “Getting some nature in”. Scientifically and experientially proven, we owe it to ourselves to listen to the other side, learn about the reason why we may not agree, not see eye-to-eye. The roots of all of our pleasures and pain drink from the same source, so connections may be hidden. We just have to dig deep to see it.

Conflict is normal. Difference is normal. Silence is normal. Listening is normal. Conversation and dialogue is normal. Once we’ve told our own story, we can take a bow as the leaves clap, because the root of the story is that we are just as much on stage as the trees themselves.

Teja joined Essential Partners in April, 2017. He brings a thirty-year combined experience as a PBS documentary producer, professor of media/communications and race & ethnic relations, diversity and inclusion trainer and public speaker. He has an Emmy Award and three Telly Awards for social issues PBS documentaries, and is the author of four books about race and culture. He started his company, Entertaining Diversity, Inc. in 1992, to teach issues of racism through entertainment. Teja is African-American/Filipino and German, and grew up in Japan, has traveled through many countries and has been a keynote speaker in over 1,200 locations around the US. Telling stories that build bridges between many perspectives has always been his mission in life and work.