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How do you have a conversation, a fruitful, honest, respectful conversation, when you disagree with the other person? This would seem to be a question that consumes us these days. Our world seems to be more and more at odds every day. Just take a look at Facebook or a news station or the editorial pages! They are all filled with conversations in which people do not or cannot agree. Simple arguments escalate into free-for-alls with everyone slinging mud and calling names and no one really listening to anyone at all.
It saddens me that our public sphere has descended into this state. But some people will say that it is a necessary evil. When we are always polite and civil in our conversation, sometimes the things that most need to be said, the things that most need to be confronted, get lost because we are too afraid we will offend someone or because we feel the topics too personal, too painful to be discussed. But at the same time, when our conversation becomes nothing more than yelling at one another and digging our heels into our own opinions, nothing gets accomplished except hurt feelings. How do we work around this?
I believe we can start with a childhood experience. Remember when you were little, and you thought that everybody else lived just like you did? As children, we don’t know any better—we don’t have the experience of the wisdom to realize that our reality is not the same as everyone else’s. But then we grow up. We begin to see other families, other homes, perhaps other cultures and other countries. And we come to understand that what was our reality is not the only reality that exists. Do we demand that everyone else change their families and their lives to look like ours? No, of course not. Instead, we learn that different doesn’t mean bad. We learn that there is something of value in everyone, and that differences can co-exist peacefully. We learn that differences can enrich our lives, teach us new things, and perhaps change our perspective.
Does coming to these realizations mean that we change our own lives completely and try to live exactly like others? No, of course not. But we may come to incorporate the good things we find in others into our own existence. We may come to know that listening to and learning from others teaches us to view the world differently. But this cannot happen unless we take the first step—realizing that ours is not the only way and that understanding only comes through listening with our whole hearts, even to those opinions we think we already know and with which we disagree. That is because other people have to come to their conclusions in that same way that we have come to ours—through lifetimes of experiences that may or may not mirror our own. When we listen to others, we validate the truth of their learned experience and we can begin to see the world through their eyes. Perhaps we can then come closer to understanding why they believe what they believe.
Does this mean that ultimately, we will agree? No, of course not. But only when we listen to one another respectfully and understand the reasons why others believe what they do, can we hope that they will listen to us with equally open minds. For it is only when we listen with compassion that we can begin to find the space in which we can either agree to disagree or come to a mutual understanding that sets the stage for compromise.

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