It's Wednesday evening in the basement of Montpelier's Kellogg-Hubbard Library, and I'm helping myself to red grapes and flavored seltzer.
"Have you tried the lemon kind?" a man asks. He looks nice enough - but you can never tell with people.
"I prefer lime," I say. "But no worries." Better not to start any needless conflict.
I take a seat in the back of a semicircle. If you count late arrivals and walk-ins, our group is about a dozen strong.
"Welcome to 'Difficult Conversations'!" announces Brooke Hadwen, our workshop leader and resident expert. Hadwen is a Neighborhood Interventionist for Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office - smart, attractive, nonconfrontational - and she's here to help us help ourselves.
Organizers at the Montpelier Community Justice Center, some of them graduates of Woodbury College's program in Mediation and Applied Conflict Studies, designed this event as a way to celebrate and revisit one of their favorite books: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. (The 1999 self-improvement tome was penned by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen and Roger Fisher.) Between now and May 2, the organizers will put on four more workshops, each tailored to a specific interpersonal theme such as "Community," "End of Life," and "Workplace." At tonight's session, which focuses on "Neighbors," free copies of the book are available for each participant who sticks around till evening's end.
When my editor first assigned me to report on these proceedings, I didn't exactly feel my writerly needs were being met. But in light of the day I've had, I think this exercise may actually do me some good.
"By the time you all leave tonight," Hadwen promises, "you'll know the perfect thing to say when you're in an uncomfortable place."
I smile awkwardly.
"For starters, there's one general rule you can follow for difficult conversations," she says. "If you ever find yourself in the thick of one, I encourage everyone to get a little magic wand and wave it in front of anyone they disagree with."
I hold the smile on my face.
"That's a joke, of course," Hadwen admits. "There is no magic wand for these types of situations."
I laugh along with everyone else. But I wish it were true - probably more than they do.
Needless to say, we could all use a little more restorative justice in our dealings with others. But it's almost as if the event organizers had me in mind when they scheduled Hadwen's appearance: A few hours ago, I filled my friend Bill's diesel Jetta with gasoline.
Bill (not his real name) is a buddy of four years, an even-keeled, unmedicated kind of dude. But he never fills his car with anything but diesel. There is no telling how he'll react when he finds out about my latest misadventure.
Today's workshop focuses on neighbors. That word doesn't quite describe my relationship with Bill, although when we used to room together, he liked to say I behaved as if I lived with strangers.
As Hadwen explains how important it is to "step inside ourselves," some audience members appear to have drifted outside of consciousness. Others squint thoughtfully. The guy in athletic apparel fidgets a lot.
"It's easier to have a difficult conversation when something comes up if you've already laid the groundwork for being a good neighbor," our leader goes on. "You don't have to bring them cookies every day, but -"
No, no, I'm telling myself. Cookies is good. I think Bill likes peanut butter.
Hadwen is a professional. "Sometimes," she continues, "we need to recognize a need to acknowledge someone's upsetness."
"Listening is one of those valuable skills we practice all the time."
Hadwen asks, "What does it feel like to be listened to, everyone?"
"The Person is looking at you, obviously," answers a woman in the front row. From her sweater, I'd guess she works as a librarian, or in some other position of quiet authority.
"Sure," Hadwen concurs. "That's essential to good communication. Anyone else have anything to contribute?"
A man in the second row clears his throat.
"The Person is acknowledging your space boundaries," he states.
"Yes, in a way." Hadwen smiles.
I raise my hand.
"Yes?" she says. "The curly-haired guy in back?"
"The Person has turned the television off," I say.
"I'm serious," I whisper.
Hadwen smiles again, but doesn't say anything.
Later on, during a lull, I peek at a stray copy of Difficult Conversations. The 234-page self-help manifesto promises in the introduction that I will turn to it "again and again for advice, practical skills and reassurance." The authors claim that "A collision of opinions . . . is a result of our stories simply being different, with neither of us realizing it . . . It's as if Princess Leia were trying to talk to Huck Finn. No wonder we end up arguing."
No wonder, I agree.
Now Hadwen is telling us to break up into groups and share stories of neighborly conflict. We should just talk about whatever comes to mind, she says. I get together with two other good-neighbors-in-training. On my left is a middle-aged guy, polar-fleeced and fatherly, whom I'll call Tim. To my right, a pleasant, self-assured, professional-looking woman with straight blond hair.
We square our chairs to face one another, and Tim spills his beans. Last week, he explains, his neighbor cut down a few trees, which fell on Tim's property, et cetera, et cetera. The neighbor was confronted, not ungently, but conflict persists. It seems to me as if Tim could really have a more serious problem on his plate. Like maybe something automotive-related.
"Time's up!" Hadwen announces from the front of the room. "Now, the other people in the group should try to tell the story again. But this time, tell it from the neighbor's perspective."
Neither I nor the young woman has ever met the tree-feller in question.
"It's hard to imagine what he'd say, without knowing him personally," she admits.
"I know," I say. "But let's give Tim's neighbor the benefit of our doubt, eh?"
"I don't know," I say. "I just get this feeling he means well, in the end."
"I'm not so sure," she warns.
Driving home on I-89 in my Nissan, I wonder what Bill will say when I tell him about the gas in his tank. It's too bad we can't save our difficult conversation for a more pleasant occasion, I think, as I pull into his empty driveway.
"What are you doing with a bag of cookies at this time of night?" is Bill's first volley.
"Some way to welcome me into your home, friend," I grunt, stepping over the threshold.
"Why are you acting so strangely?"
"Calm down," I say. "I have something important to tell you."
"I'm calm," he claims, rubbing his eyes. "Why are your hands shaking?"
"Listen, Bill: Let's first acknowledge that it's OK to be wrong and imperfect. It's OK to admit that everyone's intentions are complex."
"OK," he says.
"Furthermore, it's not about if you did or didn't do it - it's about how to move forward."
"What did you do this time, Mike?"
"Bill, dealing with someone else is like dealing with wildfire. You have to be the manager."
Bill stands up. "Look, Mike. I'm not sure what you're getting at. But it's late, and Cyn- thia and I are going skiing tomorrow, and . . ."
"I understand," I say. "I'll go."
My coat still feels warm. Even though Hadwen has prepared me for the worst, I'm finding this difficult conversation relatively painless. Then Bill catches me off guard.
"Hey, Mike," he says as I'm jiggling the door lock. "Can I have my car keys back?"
My heart revolts in my chest.
"Bill, I have something to confess."
"I left your Jetta across town tonight. It should be ready in the morning, depending."
"Oh, no problem," Bill says. "We'll take Cynthia's Subaru to Mad River. You can leave the keys in my mailbox."
"Sure I can."
"Oh," he says, remembering, "and do you mind filling it up before you return it?"
"Not at all."
"Hey," he wants to know, "how was that thing tonight, in Montpelier?"
"Informative," I say.
"Good. Good for you for going," he replies, and shuts the door after me.
In the morning, I call my parents.
"Is something wrong?" Dad asks from his extension. "How was your night at that thing?"
"Full of difficult conversation," I explain. "Bill is so absorbed in his own reality that he can't acknowledge the intricacies of mine. A line in the sand has definitely been crossed."
"Some people never listen," he says, and hangs up. I shift the phone to my other ear. Mom is still on the line. I hear dogs barking in the background.
"Don't pay attention to your father," she cautions. "He's always shied away from conflict. I've never told him that outright, but it's true. You understand me, Mike?"
"Perfectly," I say. "I mean, it's not as if one can just wave one's magic wand at a tense situation and hope it'll go away or something, Mom."
Of course she agrees.