Sitting with Others and Listening

In my recent book Reforming American Politics, I propose 12 steps toward reforming American politics that flow from my commitment to stated Christian values. My first proposal is that before you begin talking about disagreements regarding hot-button political issues, you first need to lay a strong foundation by developing personal relationships of mutual understanding (hopefully leading to trust) with the person with whom you disagree. But how do you do that?

Two persons who have in-depth of experiences respectfully engaging others who do not share their own faith commitments tell us about the way to start in their stellar contributions to the book My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories on Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (Orbis Books, 2012).

Najeeba Syed-Miller, a Muslim practitioner of conflict resolution among communities of ethnic and religious diversity, shares a “basic precept she lives by.”

I must sit with others and listen to them in order to get to know them (p. 110).

Richard Mouw, a Protestant Christian practitioner of respectful engagement with members of the Catholic, Jewish and Mormon faith communities strikes a similar chord.

I have tried to understand people with whom I disagree about important issues, listening carefully to them (p. 116).

My own attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among those who have strong disagreements comport well with the suggestions of Syed-Miller and Mouw.

I have failed miserably when I have allowed those who disagree to prematurely “jump into the fray” (“Here is why you are wrong”).

I have had a modicum of success when I have provided those who disagree with one another a safe space to eventually express and discuss their disagreements by first allowing them to “sit down together” (figuratively in electronic conversations and literally in face-to-face conversations) to listen to one another and openly share their beliefs about the issue at hand and the respective reasons they have for holding to those beliefs.

I have found that by first “sitting with the other and listening well,” the other person’s tendency to be defensive can be overcome (it “softens the heart,” so to speak): “Wow! She actually wants to understand me.” This encourages reciprocity (“I should also seek to understand her”). Hopefully, this reciprocity will establish that level of mutual understanding and trust that must be attained before fruitfully laying bare and discussing disagreements.