The tenor of humane public conversation has reached a dangerous level of deterioration. I am learning new words how to degrade and insult my neighbor. Before one turns on the television, the radio or reads a blog – there should be this message: “The following words may be dangerous to your mental health.”
How do we respond to people we get along with and those we don’t? How can I keep a conversation going without erupting into a shouting match?
Two examples come to mind of ways how to disagree. Years ago, a Broadway Play (forgot the name) told the riotous story of a main character who was going to tell the truth to everyone he met. You can just imagine all sorts of nutty situations he got himself into and then tried to explain himself out of. His choice of speaking the truth spoke of good intentions but his approach was a hilarious flop.
The other example I offer is the story of two people (wife and husband) who own a regional weekly in northern Minnesota. They write in calm and measured words on controversial issues. They do their homework on “the facts” of a subject. There are no insults. No putdowns. Their invitational style encouraged community discussion.
How does one cultivate conversation in a time of name-calling and adamantly held positions?
I don’t have magic answers. And I’m not going to give advice. Here are some observations.
- I have found it helpful to say at the beginning of a conversation with someone you disagree with: “I’m not trying to change your mind. I want to hear your thoughts. Can we talk?”
- Look for ways to keep the conversation going. As it ends, “can we talk again.”?
- If you write a letter to a friend or to a newspaper, wait before you send it. Is this what you to say?
- There are people who recognize good will. People will quickly spot if you are speaking as an enemy or as a listening neighbor. Only you have control over what you say.
- Observe people who speak and write in a mediating spirit.
- Pray before you speak or write.
We choose the people we talk to. Do I really want to understand an opposing viewpoint? Do I need to carefully reexamine my own position?
We can use the style of the Broadway Play character who wanted to tell the truth and it all backfired. Or we can cultivate a style of the editors of a regional newspaper who encourage community conversation.
There are people in our lives who are difficult to get along with. You and I may be one. These people may be at your church, in your home, in the wider family, at work, with friends or next door where you live.
John Oxenham, the English poet encourages us “to take the High Road.” Here are a few lines from his poem, The Ways.
To every person there openeth
A Way and Ways and a Way
And the High Soul climbs the High Way
And the Low Soul gropes the Low
And in between, on the misty flats
The rest drift to and fro
……And everyone decidith
The Way one’s Soul shall go.