Communication is homo sapiens’ greatest strength, yet paradoxically also its greatest weakness. Knowledge of our species’ achievements has been passed down through tens of thousands — if not millions — of years. Whether it be through oral tradition, singing, painting, or nonverbal gestures, we have been able to share our collective experiences to provide blueprints for the following generations to take advantage of, to prevent us having to constantly reinvent the wheel (though that occasionally did happen). Now, we live in a world so utterly interconnected — so wired; yet, we live in a world that feels so unbelievably isolating that we often have no idea who our neighbors are. In a world where a 1-minute dance video can spread across multiple continents like wildfire consuming a drought-stricken forest, why are most of us unable to hold more than a 1-minute conversation with someone who does not share our world views?
For that reason, I (The Inverse Converse) am going to reveal a few quick tips for those who wish to occasionally exit their echo chambers to hear what others have to say, regardless of whether you agree…
1. Begin by letting the other human share a thought, feeling, or story. DON’T INTERRUPT! Let them complete their entire exposition. I have found that many of us (especially those who call the States home) tend to conversate in a ping-pong style, where one fragmented statement gets interrupted with an interjection from the other party, leading to an endless branching of topics that often lead nowhere. If one is experienced and energetic enough, they can bounce back and forth from subject to subject and EVENTUALLY compete each thought, but this often becomes exhausting and unproductive. Complete one thought, feeling, or story BEFORE moving on to the next.
2. Even if you wholeheartedly disagree with the opinion the other human is conveying, give them the chance to defend their statements. The key to respectfully disagreeing with someone is simply, respect. Jumping down someone’s throat because they believe something (even if it is obviously and irrefutably incorrect) is simply, disrespectful. Instead, reiterate their argument back to them. “Just so I am understanding this correctly, you believe that we swallow five spiders a year while we sleep, because you heard it during lunch back when you were in high school?” That statement, if spoken without emotion and incredulity, will allow your interlocutor to hear the statement coming out of someone else’s mouth and most likely reply with, “Now that I am hearing it, it does indeed sound a little suspect. Maybe I should research that to confirm.” When we are given a chance to hear what we consider to be facts coming out of someone else’s mouth, we often find that those facts are more opinions than anything else (and often flawed).
3. When engaging in the holy grail of subject material, religious or ideological positions, one must have mastered the two previous steps discussed above. Our belief systems are built around these positions, so anytime they are questioned it has the potential to shake those foundations to the core. These conversations can be transformational, but they can also end abruptly and branch into dangerous emotional territory. Most of us have seen how quickly things can devolve into emotional outbursts, which is why most tend to avoid protracted conversations about topics such as abortion or gun rights.
The first step towards having a meaningful conversation about such a delicate topic is to separate the subject from its political affiliation. I have had many conversations with people with diametrically opposed positions on these topics, and I have found the key is to not directly associate a person’s position with who they voted for in the last election. That will keep the conversation moving. Another way to look at an argument is as a convergence of differing ideas on the same subject. We might have different opinions on the outcomes of something controversial — like the rise of neoliberalism — but we inevitably have middle ground on which we can stand to elaborate on our opinions.
Most forget that we, as a species, have more in common than we think. The media has been manufacturing consent and splitting humanity into two separate-and-opposite worldviews for well over a century now, so it is easy to fall into the chasm that is continually widening between the two sides of the ideological spectrum. Once we realize that we are being pitted against each other, we can begin to bridge the gap. I have — and tremendously enjoy — discussing controversial subjects with those who share different opinions from my own. Finding common ground when you begin a conversation from two distant places is one of the most rewarding feelings any human can hope to feel. I encourage you to try it sometime.
Teaser photo credit: from enwiki, uploaded by Olof Ekström (en:User:OlofE). Petroglyphs from Häljesta (sv), Sweden. Nordic Bronze Age. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=469453