Can We Talk?Melissa Reid July/August 2023
Talking to people we disagree with is hard. We should do it anyway.
Disagreement is nothing new. As long as there have been choices, there have been differences of opinion. While it has always been gratifying to engage with like-minded people, there seems to have been a fundamental shift in recent years: a reluctance, or even complete refusal, to interact with those who hold dissimilar perspectives. The days of amicably “agreeing to disagree” have been replaced with an absolute intolerance for opposing viewpoints. Disagreement has become debilitating and demoralizing.
Nowhere is this destructive divisiveness more apparent than in the realm of political ideology. A 2016 Pew survey on partisanship and political animosity revealed a widespread contempt for Republicans among Democrats and for Democrats among Republicans. In fact, for the first time in the survey’s 24-year history, majorities in both parties expressed not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. According to the Pew study, these feelings were not limited to our opinions of political parties and their platforms. These attitudes were personal, with a significant number of respondents characterizing those holding opposing political views as closed-minded, immoral, lazy, dishonest, and/or unintelligent.1
Making a Choice
Now the good news: it doesn’t have to be this way. Authors Sarah Holland and Beth Silvers remind us in their timely book I Think You’re Wrong (but I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-filled Political Conversations that “the most important thing to know about the polarization in American politics is that we are choosing it. We are choosing division. We are choosing conflict. We are choosing to turn our civic sphere into a circus. We are choosing all of this, and we can choose otherwise.”2
While I’ve worked in the field of religious liberty for more than 20 years, in 2018 I began advocating for the religious freedom interests of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its members on Capitol Hill. Aware of Washington’s hyper-partisan reputation, I realized I needed to do more than just represent my faith tradition in the halls of Congress. My responsibility was not just to communicate my church’s positions, but to do so in a manner consistent with my faith’s core mission and values. In other words, I needed to “choose otherwise.”
That intentionality has been rewarded in both its effectiveness and reciprocity. I’ve been able to establish productive relationships with government representatives and lobbyists representing a diversity of political positions. Through mutual respect and a genuine desire for understanding, we’ve been able to identify common goals and priorities, and make substantive progress in responding to the very real problems around us.
Finding common ground doesn’t have to mean compromising one’s values or principles. In my experience, finding opportunities for dialogue with people holding radically different views has strengthened rather than weakened my existing beliefs. Tactfully engaging with those with whom we fundamentally disagree is often the quickest way to clarify and affirm our own positions. At the same time, we’re expanding our empathy for others.
In their 2017 TEDWomen Talk “Free Yourself From Your Filter Bubbles,” Joan Blades and John Gable touted the benefits of making friends with people who vote differently than we did.
“We do not have to agree on the issues,” they said. “In fact, disagreement can be good, at least when we truly listen to understand the merits of the arguments and the people with them.”
Finding creative solutions to sharing space in a diverse society isn’t easy. But relationships built on mutual respect and understanding can result in the achievement of a variety of shared objectives. By leading with the acknowledgment of the inherent dignity and value of our fellow humans—what Christians refer to as recognizing the imago Dei—we can more easily separate people from policy positions. When we engage from a posture of grace, humility, and, dare I say, love for one another, we’re able to respect and even defend our differences rather than vilify each another. In other words, we don’t have to be disagreeable in our disagreements.
Harvard Business School researcher and professor Francesca Gino suggests that motive matters when we enter difficult conversations. She notes that “when we do engage with people whose views clash with ours, we typically try to convince them to abandon their point of view in favor of ours. Assuming that we’re right and they’re wrong, we fight for our perspective and try to ‘win’ the argument.”3
As a Christian, I’m granted the welcome freedom that comes with the recognition that it’s not my responsibility to convince or convict others. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit. But not only is persuasion not my calling, it’s typically an ineffective mechanism for change.
Gino offers a better approach: “When we appear receptive to listening to and respecting others’ opposing positions, they find our arguments to be more persuasive… . In addition, receptive language is contagious: It makes those with whom we disagree more receptive in return.”
Our nation faces very real challenges, not least of which is the destructive divisiveness of its public discourse. By recognizing the individual and collective benefits that come from healthy civil engagement, we can work together to create positive change.
As Holland and Silvers say: “There is a way to talk about politics that leaves you inspired instead of depleted. There is a way to engage with each other that could (as it has in the distant past) lead to consensus and solutions, innovations, and improvement.”
Rather than disengaging, antagonizing, or demonizing those with differing perspectives, let’s return to kindly “agreeing to disagree” while working toward opportunities for partnership in the spaces in which we hold shared visions and values.
1 “Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016: Highly Negative Views of the Opposing Party–and Its Members,” Pew Research Center, June 22, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2016/06/22/.partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/
2 Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth A. Silvers, I Think You’re Wrong (but I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-filled Political Conversations (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020).
3 Francesca Gino, “Disagreement Doesn’t Have to Be Divisive,” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 16, 2020.
Article Author: Melissa Reid
Melissa Reid is the associate editor of Liberty.