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Must Listen to 12-Step Naysayers, Even if We Disagree

PeaPod asked me to do a guest post for Binge Inking and I was honored. PeaPod posted my contribution yesterday, you can read it here or below.


Peapod recently had a great post detailing recent public professional resistance to 12 step recovery.

What’s most disheartening is not just the skepticism and resistance to involving the recovering community and using it as a resource. What’s most disheartening is that these critics ascribe bad motives to the recovery movement. (Go to the post and read them. They are really vicious.)

Too often, many of us walk into these situations with hardened beliefs. Hardened beliefs about our answers to difficult questions like: the nature of drug problems, what approaches help addicts, the role of society in addressing individual drug problems, what constitutes success, what priorities we should follow, etc. We also often walk in with hardened beliefs about the people that disagree with us—what motivates them and what their answers are.

Just last week, the NPR show, Being, had an episode focused on listening in the abortion debate. The show centers on an interview with Frances Kissling, an abortion rights activist who, in recent years, has tried to change her approach with pro-life activists. She rejects “common ground” approaches because she believes that the pressure of the anticipated outcome interferes with the dialog, also, that it’s not realistic where deep, deep differences are present. Rather she advocates listening and trying to understand those who disagree with her. (I’m aware that abortion is, or should be, a much more difficult issue. The difference between abortion and other hot button issues is addressed in the interview.)

Ms. Tippett: I want to read you something that I was really struck by that you wrote. You were giving a list of a couple of qualities that you thought were necessary, as you said, if we are to continue the conversation to bring construction forward thinking approaches to what has been a long and difficult issue. One of them that really struck me was “the courage to be vulnerable in front of those we passionately disagree with.”

Ms. Kissling: Right, right. And I think that’s the hardest thing to do and I think it is very hard for all of us in these situations to acknowledge, for example, that we just don’t have the answers to this problem. I don’t think we have the answers to the problem of abortion in our society, whether it’s the problem of abortion itself or the problem of how we’re going to mediate our differences about abortion.

And a willingness to admit that is very, very difficult. What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? Where do you have doubts? Because it is only, I think, if we are interested in understanding each other and if we are ultimately interested — and it’s not a question of common ground — but if we are ultimately interested in an abortion policy that reflects what is good in the concerns of those who disagree, the only way we’re going to get any sense of what that is is if we can acknowledge what is good in the position of the other, acknowledge what troubles us about our own position. I mean, I’ve said this to somebody recently. I said, you know, I don’t understand how you can work on an issue for 35 years as complicated as this and never change your mind at all about anything.

We attempted to do something like this several years ago with our position paper on harm reduction. We asserted that values are the foundation of any intervention. (We rejected assertions that evidence/science/rationality is the only guide some advocates use. Evidence is data. How we understand data is often determined by values and how you choose to act on the data is dictated by values. Our values and beliefs influence cost/benefit decisions, how we weigh public health vs individual health, how we weigh personal liberty vs. coercion, how we rank harms, what outcomes we believe are possible, what outcomes we believe are ideal, etc.) We attempted to define our values and invited others to share theirs. The paper was meant as an earnest invitation to a dialog about how to meet the needs of addicts.

It’s fair to say it fell flat. I think that the paper stands up fairly well, there are a few things I might change. However, my positions on many of these matters have evolved over the years—and I often remind myself that I was certain I was right before these positions evolved. I’m now more committed to responding to the suffering of addicts without contingencies and consistently conveying unconditional support for the addict and their recovery. (This does not mean that I will grant whatever they want, rather that my willingness to be a fellow traveler is unconditional.) My opinions evolved from listening and allowing myself to be vulnerable, as Kissling discussed above. If I listen well, I may be able to honor some of their values without abandoning mine. Who knows, if I honor some of their values and learn speak to those values, I may be able to change the way they think about recovery and recovery advocates. Further, most people probably do not walk into these discussions with strong opinions, maybe we’ll be more effective at influencing the opinions of less interested parties.

It’s also fair to say that I often fall short of this ideal. I care deeply about the welfare of addicts and get angry when I see them neglected, patronized and discriminated against. Still, my sarcasm does nothing for my cause.

What’s at the root of their resistance? More importantly, can we listen to them and look for opportunities to understand and honor their values? (Surely, some of them will be motivated by values we cannot honor, but I suspect those are the minority.)

Are we in the recovery movement able to acknowledge what in our own position gives us trouble? What we find attractive in the positions of our critics? Where we have doubts?

Do we wait for them to listen to us? Or, do we seek to understand, rather than to be understood?

Many of us respect Bill White. He’s been doing a lot of this work for us and I think it has been one of his more important gifts to the field.

This article was originally published on


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