Listening Beyond the Conflict

I recently had a heated disagreement with a close friend on politics which resulted in a real wedge in our friendship. Besides making me unhappy, It has caused me to think much harder about how to have civil discourse on subjects which I may passionately disagree with someone. My friend’s answer is simply to not engage in conversation about controversial subjects, i.e. religion, politics. This is not an uncommon answer and one which we all have subscribed to at some point. But in today’s times it sure seems like civil discourse is gone and instead we have demonization of the other as evil or a lack of respect for the other stemming in part from our failure to see any good in what they are saying.

Frances Kissling is well known in the abortion debate as a longtime catholic for choice. She has spent over 25 years talking with people about this issue and after all this time, she shares her insights on how to have civil discourse with someone with whom you passionately disagree. The podcast entitled, “Listening Beyond Life and Choice” can be heard here. This is not an interview about the merits of a position – it is about what she has learned about civil discourse on an especially sensitive but huge issue of our time.

According to Frances Kissling, we must approach others positively and with enthusiasm for the difference. It is not so much about finding common ground as it is refusing to see the other as evil. These concepts are so key. Just think about them for a minute. When did you last enter a conversation with someone you know who thinks differently than you with any enthusiasm. It is more probable that you dreaded the conversation, had reservations, ran away, or came into it defensively, authoritative, not open, and perhaps even unwilling to be questioned. Or maybe you felt attacked by the other or disrespected or did not even notice your own tone was less than enthusiastic for conversation. All these emotions can be read and perceived by the other just as a calm, enthusiastic, open-hearted desire to engage and learn can also be perceived.

Furthermore, what about thinking about that other person’s views as coming from a good place rather than simply categorizing the person – not even their views, but the person – as evil. Do we start the conversation or come into it thinking that the polar opposite person sitting there is coming from a good place or do we automatically believe they are coming from a not good place – because all that shows too. Don’t we believe in the good in our fellow man or has the media and the shapers of politics in this country changed our hearts to believe that the different one is definitely the bad guy.

This may not be easy to do and is going to require practice but we have taken the concepts of approaching differences with defensiveness and anger and demonizing the other so to heart that I believe we do it in lots of areas of life not just the hot button issues in the public sphere. We do it in our relationships, we do it at work, we do it in our own families. We have to stop doing that to one another.

Kissling focuses on another issue I think is key. She says she is not a believer in finding common ground initially in some of these more difficult issues and it is more about bringing people who disagree with each other together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other beliefs what they do. If that can be the focus, she says, good things will come from that. Keeping pressure on finding agreement works against really trying to understand one another.
When there is extreme polarization, it will be difficult to have the necessary trust – at the outset – to reach common ground. So work instead on learning the values and concerns of the person or people who disagree with you. Is there any way you can honor some of the other’s values without giving up yours? Asking questions with enthusiasm from a place of love – believing in the good of the other – changes the playing field and will elicit answers you will never get the other way. New answers mean new information which means increasing the range and amount of answers. Can you see how thinking in this way can stop the demonization process, lessen the fear of the “differences” and move you to a better place?

I think even when people think about mediation, a lot of times they do not believe the necessary trust is there to sit down and come to a resolution. In my experience in so many kinds of cases including family, employment cases, business cases, this will be true. So slow it down a bit and spend some time learning and refuse to collapse the issue to “positions.” Good things will come of that and then you may be better able to find options that may work toward resolution. Contrast that with fighting about it with lawyers. The only way you move forward is because you are done spending money, too exhausted or the judge told you – you are done.

I reiterate what an amazing website Krista Tippett has developed. It is taking such an important reality that has gone awry right now in our culture – civil debate – and refocused us on remembering the positives, the love, and the learning that can be done by listening with enthusiasm to our fellow man.