I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we talk to one another. All of us. And specifically when we disagree. It seems lately that when it comes to politics and ideas or beliefs in general, that we polarize and talk over one another. I’m guilty of it. I’ve been thinking about this and I want to share my thoughts with you.
Why is it so hard to hear opinions that are different from our own? For one, I’ve noticed that the way we talk about important issues can get mean, fast. So the message we’re often sending each other isn’t just “I disagree” but “I disagree and you’re an idiot for thinking the way you do.” Which, surprise, is not an easy message to hear!
I see a lot of this kind of back and forth happening online. With the comfort of distance it seems people can say whatever they want without any real consequence and without having to see the hurt they cause in the other person’s face.
But we also do this face to face. Important conversations quickly turn loud and we lean on our existing opinions and talking points without considering what the other person is saying. Complex issues become simplified to either-or answers. Why can’t we hear other points of view without feeling threatened?
Offensive ≠ Violent
During a thoughtful conversation recently someone said to me that just because something is offensive doesn’t mean that it’s violent. I’ve been thinking about this since then and it makes sense that opposing opinions feel threatening, and that we can confuse that feeling with actually feeling unsafe. Opposing ideas threaten our own personally held ideas and beliefs, which we believe for a reason.
But I think that often we respond as if an opposing opinion is actually violent. In response we fight back, or we remove ourselves from the conversation to limit our exposure to the thing that is threatening. We could decide to avoid people who we fundamentally disagree with. And that’s an easy answer to life’s complexities, to only surround yourself with people who think just like you. But I believe that to do that would be a real loss.
What if we realize that there is more nuance to our disagreements? That we can disagree with someone or even be offended by what they’re saying and still hear them out. That ideas in general aren’t always either right or wrong, but are a reflection of our experiences and values relative to our situations. And what if we realize that the people we’re talking to are… people? People who live in situations and cultures that are different than our own, and who also respond to their circumstances and values.
Care About People More than Ideas
But why? Why would we listen to an idea that we believe to be wrong or even harmful? We do it because we care about each other. We engage because we matter and they matter and as humans we have such a strong desire to be heard and seen. And when we do that for one another, when we give each other the time and patience that we all deserve, we are all changed for the better.
So, how do we do this? I think we first resist the urge to change someone’s mind. Don’t go into a conversation with the end in mind. Instead, listen. Really listen. Ask questions about the person’s experience and realize that their experiences and beliefs matter as much to them as yours do to you. When and if you decide to share your point of view do it in a way that doesn’t put the other person down. Talk about your experiences and how you’ve come to believe what you believe.
Let the person in front of you (or the person you’re talking to online) be your priority. For that moment make sure that you care more about that person than you do about ideas. This doesn’t mean that you agree with them. We can care about each other and disagree, but let’s care about each other first.
There have been times in my life when I have seen this process play out and it has really changed me, for the better. For example I can think of a conversation with my mom where we disagreed with each other, and through that experience she showed me kindness and patience. She did not insist that I change my opinions to be the same as hers. She talked to me about her life and her beliefs, and she listened to me and cared about my experience.
This conversation did not change my perspective in the moment, but over the years her opinions and beliefs have changed me and the way I think. I’m so grateful for the experience she gave me, and that she showed me how to engage about important ideas and work through how I felt about them. I’m grateful that she cared more about me as a person than she did about changing my mind or forcing her opinions on me.
Listening is Loving
That is the gift that I hope we can give each other. When we start to feel threatened by an opposing opinion I hope that we can realize that just because it might feel offensive doesn’t make it violent. I hope we engage in a way that shows the other person that we care about them. And that ultimately, if we end up still disagreeing, we are better for having treated each other like thinking, feeling, human beings.
This is an idea that as a practice we are working on together. We have a Facebook group dedicated to us coming together and engaging about important ideas, knowing that we are not going to always agree. I have been impressed by the respect that everyone has shown each other and it’s pushed me to see ideas that I feel strongly about in a new light.