A Pleasant Political Conversation?!

Some people maintain a general rule: “I don’t discuss religion or politics.” It’s understandable because few topics can generate as much tension, aggravation, anger, or even hatred. Yet, politics and religion reflect our deepest values and beliefs, which many of us want to share with those who are closest to us or people we would like to know better. The problem we seem to have is how to hold civil conversations about these deeply personal matters. How do we give and receive respect and understanding, especially when we don’t see eye to eye?

Recently I had a chance to test my deep listening ideas when talking politics with someone “on the other side” — my 89-year-old grandfather. Historically, we have simply taken our usual positions and banged heads together with the same old arguments and futile hope of convincing the other of our viewpoint. Inevitably, we wind up shaking our heads at one another and chuckling that the other one “just doesn’t get it.” All that these so-called conversations seem to have done for me is to reinforce the beliefs I hold about different issues, and to reinforce my belief that Grandpa “doesn’t get it” (he likely has a similar sense about me). I don’t feel understood by him…and sadly, I have not been trying to understand where he is coming from.

Instead of trying either to defend my side or to make myself understood, I tried the radical notion of deeply listening to his worldview. So when he threw out a baited political hook, I let it pass. Oh sure, I felt myself tensing up, getting ready to arm myself for another defend-and-attack discussion. Seeing that automatic reaction, I instead chose to take a deep breath, to pull up a chair next to him, and to ask, “what are you most concerned about for our country?” And I followed up that question with other genuine, heartfelt questions such as “in your view, what makes those changes so problematic?” or “what do you think needs to change to make our country better?” and when he identified a solution, “how do you think that would work?” I did not lure him into a rhetorical trap, point out his contradictions, or begin any sentence with “yes, but…” It was not always easy — there were times when I wanted to pounce — but I reminded myself that my purpose was to understand my grandfather better. It turned out that we share many of the same concerns and even have some similar ideas about what solutions we would like to see attempted.

When I dropped my efforts to defend my ideas or to win an argument/debate, and instead tried to have an honest, open discussion in order to see from my grandfather’s view, I felt more connected with him and more understanding of what matters most to him. The conversation still showed where we differ, but the differences didn’t seem so far apart nor so insurmountable.

What if each of us genuinely tried to listen deeply to someone “on the other side?”