Many of us know someone who has stopped talking or socializing with a friend, family member or neighbor because they disagreed about something. Cutting off conversation when it becomes uncomfortable seems to be a national past time. This concerns me greatly because without conversation and dialogue, we are unlikely to ever come to a point of mutual understanding and compromise which is necessary to sustain our democracy.
In my training to be a civic leader, we were encouraged to meet with people that we did not understand, like, or agree with. Our task was to sit down with them in a one-on-one conversation, ask open-ended questions and suspend judgement until we had listened – really listened to their point of view. I would be the first to admit that this is challenging work. We all have deep biases and beliefs and it is hard to live in the tension that comes about when someone else strongly disagrees with us.
The point of this exercise was to practice the art of conversation and to get into a deeper dialogue that might allow participants to reach a point of mutual understanding with another. Without reaching a mutual understanding early on, civic leaders have found that it is very unlikely that a public problem– or any kind of problem, can be solved satisfactorily. Taking the time to reach an understanding about an issue or project is unusual. Concerns are often not heard or are glossed over. Actions are initiated quickly, and not surprisingly, things often break down during the implementation phase – or even earlier.
Researchers say that we tend to hang out with the people who agree with us. We gather facts that substantiate our own claims and ignore facts when they go against what we believe. We polarize situations by hanging fast to opinions when we often don’t know the facts or don’t see nuanced points of view, the circumstances involved or the complexity of a situation. Not only do we keep a lot of important work from getting done by closing our minds and hearts, but we cheat ourselves out of the experiences of understanding, forgiveness, and the opportunities for personal growth and development.
I am deeply grateful for my parents. I grew up in a home where we talked around the dinner table nightly, often for hours after the meal was over. We sometimes argued, got angry at one another, strongly debated issues, cried, laughed and sometimes changed our minds. In the process, we became a closely knit, loving and forgiving family. We liked being right, but it was OK if we weren’t. Over the years, the edges would soften on our points of view and it became easier to be in what I like to call, the” muddy middle”. What we needed to sustain those difficult conversations and dialogue were love for one another and a willingness to be vulnerable and sometimes wrong.
I have an example where a commitment to conversation and dialogue led me from a point of disinterest in someone I knew to a point of deep caring and friendship that has meant the world to me.
Some years ago, a new colleague joined my unit at work. Immediately, I determined that we had very little in common. I found many of her views challenging and I often strongly disagreed with her. She was, Heaven forbid, a conservative! Today, I happily call myself an independent (mostly because I cannot relate to either political party). However, back then, I am ashamed to say, I was so sure of my beliefs as a very liberal Democrat, I avoided anyone who was on “the other side”. This new colleague was someone I did not particularly want to know.
About 16 or so years ago, I don’t even remember how it happened, but this colleague and I began talking. It started out superficially, but we kept talking. And we kept talking and challenging each other’s world views. There were some tense moments along the way, I must admit. But we were both committed to conversation and deeper dialogue.
Lo and behold, we started to like each other and discovered that we had a lot of similar likes and dislikes, values and beliefs. Where we disagreed, we each began to soften toward the other’s ideas. My colleague would often say, “Just because someone has a different opinion from yours, does not make them bad – or wrong.” That statement has stuck with me over the years.
Where there was once a significant divide between us, over time and through many friendly arguments, we found ourselves in a “glorious gray zone” – both of us finding it hard to label ourselves anything at all. She is now one of my closest friends. I think we could solve any problem together now because we know how to listen and suspend judgment long enough to find the answers.
So, my fellow citizens, I challenge each of you, as a way to advance world peace and your own soulful development, take a risk — sit down with someone with whom you disagree. Look into their eyes. Ask open ended-questions and then listen. Really listen. You will grow from the experience and like me, you may have gained a friend for life.