Strong Listening that Goes Beyond Politeness

This Musing is drawn from some highlights from chapter 7 of my “Let’s Talk” book, titled “Planting Tiny Seeds of Redemptive Conversation.”

We should all aspire to practice politeness, which seems to be in short supply these days. But, in our increasingly tribalistic culture, being polite is not enough.

In a conversation with another person who strongly disagrees with me about a contentious issue, here is what happens too often. Out of my commitment to being polite, I agree up-front to not interrupt my conversation partner as she presents her position on the issue and her reasons for holding her position. But as I patiently wait for her to finish, my mind is racing as I think about what I am going to say when it is my turn to speak. I am practicing “week listening” in that I have no intention to rethinking my position in light of what I hear her saying.

In stark contrast, “strong listening” involves my listening for ways in which what I hear her saying could lead to my critically re-examining my own view. Such re-examination could help me to build a better case for my own view. But it could also help me to see that there are inadequacies in my view that need correction.

My expectation for “strong listening” is captured in the fourth guideline (below) in the set of “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation” that I now expect all conversation partners to agree to prior to my including them in my various Respectful Conversation initiatives.

  • I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand.
  • I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective.
  • I will express my perspective and my reasons for holding that perspective with clarity and I conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me.
  • In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground by critically examining my own view in light of her contrary view and the reasons she has for her view.
  • Guided by the underlying values of humility, courage, patience, and love, when we cannot find common ground, I will always engage the person who disagrees with me in a way that demonstrates respect and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.

As my next musing will reveal, it is rare to find persons who give evidence of embracing my fourth guideline by combining both passionate commitment to their own beliefs and openness to a possible need to correct their present beliefs in light of “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs of others; which reflects a failure to embrace the Christian value of humility.

Talking About our Differing Partial Glimpses of the Truth

This Musing is abstracted out from a longer narrative, titled “Major Obstacles to Inclusive and Respectful Conversations, With the Essential First Step,” presented in chapter 1 of my book  “Let’s Talk.”

I believe that God knows the truth about all things. And, as one who aspires to be a follower of Jesus, I embrace with deep conviction his teaching that he came into the world to “bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).

But the fact that I am not God presents a considerable challenge. My own quest for the truth and my aspiration to live out that truth are insatiable (sometimes I feel like my commitment to the Christian value of truth will consume me). But as a finite, fallible human being, I have only a partial glimpse of the truth that God fully understands. I “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

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Foundational Christian Values

The following Musing is the first in a series of eleven weekly musings that are abbreviated versions of various portions of my recent book “Let’s Talk: Bridging Divisive Lines Through Inclusive and Respectful Conversations.” It is my hope that you will find my sequence of Musings to cohere and flow well toward the goal of building a strong case for creating safe and welcoming spaces to listen to and discuss disagreements with those who disagree with you about contentious issues as a deep expression of the love for others to which Jesus calls all those who aspire to be his followers.

I was emerging as a Christian big-shot during my early days teaching mathematics at The King’s College in Briarcliff Manor, New York; or at least that is what I thought at the time.

In addition to my teaching responsibilities, for which I received laudatory evaluations from both my students and faculty peers, I was heavily involved in important institutional service assignments.

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Affirmative Action based on Economic Imbalance

I look back with horror at the prevalence of slavery in the history of America. Someone once asked me to conjecture as to what Americans may look back at with horror a hundred years from now. My answer was and still is the disparity in wealth and well-being between the rich and the poor.

This conjecture is my starting point for reflecting on the current heated debate regarding affirmative action relative to college admissions. Read more

Choosing Both / And rather than Either / Or as an Antidote to Polarization in America

Much of my work over the years has focused on my calling into question either/or binary positions on contentious issues; choosing, rather, to formulate both/and positions that seek to capture the best insights from those adhering to the two either/or poles

It all started many years ago, during my days as a Vice President for Academic Affairs (VPAA) at two Christian liberal arts colleges. The first either/or false choice I rejected was as follows:

  • College faculty members should focus either on effective teaching or productive scholarship.

This false choice fails to capture the truth that effective teaching and productive scholarship are two sides of the same coin, with each activity enriching the other.

More recently, there has been a debate in Christian higher education circles about another false choice:

  • College education should focus either on the dissemination of information or the development of character.

Once again it is both/and, not either/or. At its best, college education includes the dissemination of information that will deeply inform the character development of the learner (for elaboration, see pp. 27-31 of my book Let’s Talk). Read more

Dividing or Uniting Americans: Trying to Recruit Two Northwest Iowans

The following was published in the September 8 issue of the Capital Democrat in Orange City, Iowa

It has been accurately suggested that a rapidly emerging problem among Americans is that half of us don’t want to talk to the other half.

As some readers of the Capital Democrat may recall from previous pieces I have written, for the past decade or so my primary passion has been to try to create safe and welcoming spaces for persons who have strong disagreements to talk respectfully to one another about their disagreements, as a deep expression of love. The results of five such past conversations (called eCircles) can be accessed on my website,

I would now like to design a sixth such conversation, precipitated by a criticism I have of President Biden’s recent speech about “The Future of Our Nation.” Biden’s speech presented a strong critique of the extreme MAGA wing of the Republican party as posing a severe threat to democracy in America. I happen to agree with Biden about this severe threat. But my criticism of Biden’s speech is that, as one interviewee on Fox News said, in this speech he was serving as a “Divider-in-Chief,” not as the “Uniter-in-Chief” that he has promised to be. Perhaps Biden has given up hope that MAGA Republicans want to talk to those who disagree with them. I cling tenaciously to that hope.

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Divide or Unite: My Invitation to MAGA Republicans.

The impetus for my invitation is the speech recently given in Philadelphia by President Biden on the topic “The Soul of the Nation” and two criticisms of that speech, one by a Biden supporter and one by a non-supporter.

Biden’s speech was a blistering criticism of those he views as extreme MAGA Republicans; while acknowledging that there are many Republicans who do not fit into this category. In strong language, he stated his view that these extreme MAGA Republicans are a severe threat to Democracy in America.

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Navigating The Abortion Debate: Conversations Based on Values

The Supreme Court has spoken, voting 5-4 to overturn Roe vs. Wade, thereby turning over to the various states the right to enact their own abortion laws.

I fear that this decision will lead to an unprecedented level of vitriolic political discourse, and even to violence, as different states enact laws ranging from banning abortion at any time after conception to providing abortion “on demand” at any time during pregnancy.

It will surprise no one reading this Musing that given this climate of fear, I urge residents of all states to express their beliefs about abortion in public venues, with the hope that it is not too late for each state to provide safe and welcoming spaces for differing views to be shared and respectfully discussed.

Motivated by that hope, I will now present my views on abortion. Read more

Hurrah for Bipartisan Gun Legislation

I applaud the imminent passage of bipartisan gun legislation that is long overdue.

This is not the first time that a small bipartisan group of legislators has been able to forge bipartisan legislation. Two other examples come to mind, one old and one relatively new.

In 2013, a small bipartisan “gang of eight” senators, four Democrats an four Republicans, collaborated to forge a comprehensive bill on immigration reform that was passed by the Senate. Alas, this legislation died when it came to the House of Representatives.

A more recent example that had a successful outcome in the Halls of Congress was the passing of a bipartisan bill on hard infrastructure that started with the forging of a bipartisan bill by a small bipartisan group of legislators. Read more

An Open Letter to Elon Musk

Dear Mr. Musk:

News of your purchase of Twitter has elicited numerous reactions, both positive and negative. I am responding positively, with some qualifications.

I applaud your commitment to foster “free speech” that will give voice to the expression of any belief about any contentious issue. My applause is prompted by a very painful experience I had a number of years ago when a great injustice was done to me and I was silenced. No one wanted to hear my side of the story. No one should be silenced in a conversation about anything.

I also wish to applaud your assertion that “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” and your aspiration that Twitter become “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” I wish to take you at your word. Therefore, at the end of this letter, I will reflect on what may be required to make this assertion reality. Read more