The way local and world events are going at the moment, there is a growing desire to engage. To talk to one another! And this is good. In these turbulent times, we need to be talking to each other. But we won’t get far in our conversations if we lack the skills to converse well. And right now, a lot of the most visible conversations out there are pretty awful.
Leaving aside exchanges that involve threats, insults, and name-calling, do you ever overhear conversations that sound something like this?
Atheist: Religion is nonsense. It substitutes fantasy for science.
Muslim: Wait, I am religious, and I believe in science! Not all religion is equal.
Atheist: Yeah, there are different religions. But they all involve made-up stories! If you want to live in the truth, you have to get rid of religion.
Muslim: How do you know truth if you don’t know God? My religion, Islam, specifically instructs humans to use science to better understand the truth. My religion has produced some of the greatest scientists!
Atheist: Then why do Muslims and other religious people deny objective truth and believe made-up stories? And why do they do so many stupid and harmful things?
Muslim: Just because somebody calls themself a Muslim or any other label doesn’t guarantee that they are not stupid or harmful. You have to commit to seeking God if you want to know the truth more fully. Then you will live in greater peace with society and God’s laws for our existence.
These two people are having totally different conversations. Sure, it looks like functional conversation is happening: they repeat each other’s words, and they at least seem to address what the other says. But neither of them have truly engaged in a collaborative way. Atheist is stuck on saying that religion is made-up and unscientific, while Muslim is going on about how you can only know deeper truths through committing to seeking God. Neither person is giving any space to the other’s point of view.
This is linguistic coercion: the use of a word or phrase in a way that has not been consented to by the listener(s). In the above conversation, we can look at the way the word truth is used:
Atheist: … If you want to live in the truth, you have to get rid of religion.
Here, Atheist is proclaiming that truth and religion cannot coexist. It’s pretty obvious that Muslim does not agree with that. But the next time Atheist speaks, she states that “Muslims and other religious people deny objective truth” – once again imposing her view that truth and religion cannot coexist.
If Atheist is interested in having a more collaborative discussion, she should stop pushing this conclusion. Of course, Atheist is free to act as she wishes. But why waste your time in conversation with someone if you have already decided that you are right and they are wrong? Imposing your point of view non-consensually usually doesn’t lead to favorable results.
Muslim also engages in linguistic coercion around the words truth and God:
Muslim: How do you know truth if you don’t know God?
Muslim: … You have to commit to seeking God if you want to know the truth more fully.
The second statement comes after Atheist has said that religion is nonsense, made-up, and incompatible with the truth. If Muslim wants a more collaborative discussion, she should stop claiming that truth and God are one, because Atheist has not consented to accept this assertion.
People many times do this intentionally, especially on TV and the internet. Often, however, linguistic coercion is an accidental byproduct of our own biases and experiences with life.
What exactly are we talking about?
Some of the most frustrating conversations happen when the participants appear to agree on a lot, yet they still go back and forth. Why?
Often it’s simply a matter of how each person understands certain words and concepts. Or even just one word or concept! Let’s look at the word racist, for example:
John: Sam says she doesn’t have white friends because white people are bigoted. She’s a racist!
Molly: Sam is not a racist! Have you ever heard her saying that one race is inferior to another, or that a certain race of people should be deported or arrested or anything?
Keith: Yeah. Besides, as a person of color … I’ve gotta say, she’s right. A lot of white people are really bigoted! I have white friends, but I get where she’s coming from.
John: How is that not racism, to think that way? You’re lumping white people together as one blob. That’s totally reverse racism!
Molly: Maybe so. But you said ‘Sam is a racist’. A racist is like a Nazi or KKK member. Saying one offensive thing is different. I’m sure you’ve said something offensive about this or that group before – does that make you a straight-up racist?
John: No, not if you realize it and you apologize and take it back. But Sam isn’t taking back what she said. She means it!
Keith: She only talks about white people as a group like that because of her experiences with them being bigoted. Besides, in a white supremacist society, racism doesn’t really happen to white people. That’s why you called it reverse racism.
Molly: Racism is racism. A person of color who thinks white people are bad and wants to eradicate them is a racist, same as any white person who thinks like this about brown-skinned people.
John: Yeah, and when I hear a white person saying something about brown people being bad and standing by it, that makes them a racist too! You are what your values are. That’s why I say Sam is a racist.
Keith: Ok, but not all racism is the same. When was the last time white people lived in a brown-supremacist society? You can’t act like white supremacy has nothing to do with it.
Each of these people has a different idea of what the word “racist” means, whom it applies to, and how. Similar things happen with words like “feminism,” “liberal,””conservative,” “Zionist,” “hate,” “peace,” “justice,” “revolution,” and countless others. People think they know what these words mean, but in reality, there are several different meanings floating around out there, and your meaning is not universally accepted. Acting like it is doesn’t help things.
Common ground is the first step
Our discussions with others are only as good as what we consent to agree on. In the above exchange, the agreement that makes the discussion coherent is that racism is bad. In the first discussion between Atheist and Muslim, it is that seeking the truth is important.
But how obvious are these agreements? What percentage of our conversation time do we spend on points of agreement, especially in today’s climate of gotcha soundbites and comment wars?
Common ground may not always be as memorable and attractive as disagreement, but it is often more useful. For one thing, focusing attention on points of agreement is a show of respect. Imagine either Atheist or Muslim saying to the other, “I appreciate how you think it’s important to seek the truth.” Just engaging in this recognition of common values already shifts the tone of the discussion these two individuals might have.
We are more likely to listen to someone who affirms our values and makes us feel at least partly understood. It is also the case that we are more likely to be listened to if we show respect for the values of those we converse with.
Putting respect into practice
RESPECT in conversation doesn’t mean that you agree. It doesn’t mean you give up the right to question the other’s beliefs. It also doesn’t mean that you are “surrendering” to them, not at all.
It simply means that, for a moment, you are willing to engage on their terms, and not yours, for the sake of good communication.
This is not capitulation. It’s research and reconnaissance. Engaging in respectful dialogue with people who hold hostile ideas requires strength and patience. If anyone gets on your case simply for listening to an antagonistic point of view, they are showing their own weakness and lack of listening skills.
What the person you are talking to values is such an important piece of information! Yet we seek it far too rarely, possibly because we’re afraid that their values will only disgust us. But remember, you are looking for common values, that you both share. Put aside the crazy stuff and focus on that.
You do have to be willing to listen to things you may not like – but it’s often easier to do this than people make it out to be. Let’s take a conversation about guns, for example:
Gun Hater: Why are you so into guns? They’re unsafe! They hurt and kill people.
Gun Owner: I’ve never shot at anyone. Hope I never do. But some people have no respect for life, and I just want to be prepared if someone dangerous threatens me or my family.
Gun Hater: Sounds like self-defense is really important to you. I get where you’re coming from.
Gun Hater has not stopped hating guns. He hasn’t stopped thinking they’re unsafe and that they kill people. He’s still incredibly uncomfortable about people carrying guns. He’d rather call the police if threatened by someone dangerous than grab a gun himself.
But he says none of this stuff. Instead, he shows full respect for Gun Owner’s point of view by affirming the desire for self-defense against aggression. And since Gun Owner is being listened to, it becomes more likely that Gun Owner might later become curious herself:
Gun Owner: So why are you against people having a gun, anyway?
Gun Hater: Because the stakes are so high. Somebody who gets angry with a gun can cause a lot more grief and horror than someone who’s just angry.
Gun Owner: I’d never ever grab my gun when I’m angry. I wish more people thought about what you just said before buying a gun.
Gun Hater: But isn’t a gun the ultimate expression of anger and hatred? A weapon designed to destroy flesh?
Gun Owner: For too many people, it is. There’s a lot of irresponsible gun culture out there, and I understand why you say that.
Gun Owner does not say “most gun owners aren’t angry and hateful,” or “the police shouldn’t be the only ones with guns” or even “well, guns are also fun for target practice,” even though she believes these things, because such statements would draw the conversation away from the common ground, which is that people who are angry shouldn’t be carrying a gun. Gun Owner also shows full respect for (and agreement with) Gun Hater’s fear of anger- and hatred-fueled gun violence.
Even though these individuals have different approaches to guns, they’ve got a lot of common ground if they just listen to each other and take turns fully seeing things from the other’s perspective. And as long as the conversation stays respectful and collaborative, both sides will get chances to say the things they believe that were not as appropriate to say in the moments highlighted in this dialogue – so there’s no hurry to impose one’s view on the other person.
You may also notice how the key agreement happens right after the other person has said something potentially disagreeable. That’s when it counts! It’s often when the other person says something that you clearly disagree with that the best opportunities for common ground appear.
It takes a whole lot more guts and know-how to find agreement in conflict than it does to fall into the same old trap of barking about how wrong the other person is. But you’re a better partner in conversation for it. And remember, this is an initiative you can always take, and you can also stop at any time and say, “I’m done engaging.”
Respect does not mean that you agree
The point is to seek terms of agreement, much more than we tend to do, through seeing things from the other’s perspective. But this doesn’t get rid of the disagreements you do have. In fact, if you respect the person you are talking and listening to, you won’t hide your disagreements – you’ll respect them enough to make your disagreements clear, in a non-aggressive way.
You might say, for example, “I disagree with some of what you said, but I very much respect your point of view and agree with [point A]. Please tell me more about what you mean by [point B].” Or something like “I’d like to describe my area of disagreement a bit for you,” followed by a description that does not coercively caricature the other person’s positions when making the comparisons.
If somebody wrongly presumes you agree about something, you can simply remind them what you agree on and what you don’t. Respectfully, of course. 🙂
When to engage vs. when not to engage
Some discussions simply aren’t worth getting dragged into. How do you choose when to [continue to] engage in a discussion about a disagreement? There are many important factors:
- How much time and energy you have to listen;
- How much is riding on your finding common ground;
- How much you are really curious about the other person’s point of view;
- How close to you the person is;
- How much the person shows a basic sense of respect for you and who you are;
- How willing they are to engage what you say;
- How much you care what they think;
- What your purpose is in listening to them;
- How popular the other person’s point of view is (if many other people have a similar point of view, it might be more worth listening to, because you will likely run into it repeatedly).
Ultimately the decision is yours. And it doesn’t matter your religion, your political beliefs, your nationality, your identity, what your friends and family believe, or anything else. It’s nobody else’s right to tell you whom to listen to and whom not to. Only you get to make that decision. Everybody else can back off and mind their own business – unless you ask them for advice yourself.
Politics and tough issues are important – but the way we talk about them usually sucks
You know those people around you who seem to have fairly little to say about politics and “tough” issues? The ones who remain silent most of the time, who lurk but rarely comment? Are they apathetic? Do they not care about what’s going on around them?
Every person is different, but most of those who don’t say much still have plenty of thoughts. They are doing a whole lot of listening – but they’re being very careful about when and with whom they engage, because too often, our dialogues are really crappy. Those who keep quiet often do so because they know that crappy dialogue isn’t worth wasting too much energy on.
This crappiness is reflected in the conversation styles of so many of our politicians, pundits, and other celebrities. Their conversations about serious issues too often consist either of vague, rambling, and often dishonest chatter, or else a shouting match in which the loudest and most long-winded voices prevail. Neither of those is a good model for healthy discussion – but this is generally how our best-known leaders do things. With models like this, it’s no wonder so many of us can’t speak to each other respectfully when we disagree.
Don’t expect quick conversions to your point of view
If you want to have meaningful discussions, patience is an indispensable skill.
People tend to think the way they do for deep-seated reasons. When you engage someone in conversation about a disagreement, especially if it’s a strong disagreement, you shouldn’t expect them to quickly adopt your opinion any more than you should expect yourself to suddenly take on their point of view.
Making and hearing different arguments is healthy; it’s not wrong to try to convince someone to see things as you see them. But do not put this goal above the goal of establishing respect and understanding! If you are too eager to “win” the argument, you will very easily fall into disrespectful and coercive behaviors, which leaves you no grounds to ask for respectful treatment from the person/people you are talking with.
Remember also that issues of deep-rooted disagreement are rarely resolved quickly, with one person fully changing their opinion in one go. Most often, healthy discussions of this sort proceed slowly, with lots of time available for thinking things over.
Another misconception is that the disagreement has to resolve with one person convincing the other; usually, there are small elements of agreement that happen with each side shifting little bits of their position towards a shared common ground. You may never get to full agreement; as long as you are able to maintain mutual respect, however, you might agree on a lot more than you thought possible.
What kind of person do you want to be?
Difficult conversations, like the ones talked about here, are some of the greatest tests of who we really are. Such interactions are where it becomes clear whether we are being positive or negative, based on how much we keep our ability to respect, as well as our desire to understand, those we disagree with.
Staying positive and constructive is not always easy. The blame game is a tempting drug, and when everybody around you is doing it, it’s hard to avoid. But if you are tired of the blame game and you’re looking for more clarity and meaning from your interactions, the key lies with you and how you choose to engage those you converse with.
Remember – respect doesn’t mean you like someone. It doesn’t mean you have any obligation to talk to them, either. All it means is that you don’t let people take you off your game. You refuse to fall into the trap of mutual putdowns and demonization. Remember, at any time you can say that you are done engaging; that you refuse to engage if there can’t be a basic level of respect.
The only behavior you can reliably change is your own, and if you truly value being a positive, fair, intelligent, non-bigoted person, you owe it to yourself and those around you to put those values into action in your conversations.