A friend of mine is wrong, at least that’s what it looks like to me. She’s wrong in the kind of way that’s not a harmless matter of opinion, but in a way that is causing her pain, as well as others. It is not in my nature to keep quiet in these sorts of situations. I’m terrible at biting my tongue and have a strong impulse to call it like I see it, which, it turns out, is not always the most persuasive or helpful habit. However, lately, I’ve been reigning it in and doing a lot more listening than talking (though I have done some of that too).
The situation itself has nothing to do with the political values we often encourage people to have civil dialogue about, but I feel like it’s taught me a few things in practice that apply to having discussions with people who we believe are making a mistake, personally or ideologically.
- Even if I see a problem, there’s a lot I don’t know about what’s really going on and why people do what they do or believe what they believe. I can only learn what’s happening from the sources themselves. They may be mistaken, but there’s probably more than a few good reasons they think the way they do and I would be mistaken to assume I know exactly what they should think or do.
- Listening is the key to understanding how I can actually be helpful or persuasive if there’s an opportunity for constructive dialogue. Careful listening has also revealed when my thoughts are so unwelcome as to shut down the whole dialogue.
- It might be cathartic for me to point out obvious flaws in reasoning and problems, but my catharsis is not the goal of these conversations. If I prioritize my own needs over my friend’s, I will do more harm than good.
- There’s such a thing as talking too much. Once I’ve narrowed in on the area where my dialogue partner is most open to discussion, I need to be disciplined enough to only push gently in that area and not continue on, bulldozing them and jeopardizing the topics on which my input is appreciated.
- We never know what sticks with people. We all take time to process, and I’m often surprised by off-handed comments that end up being incredibly helpful upon further reflection. It’s possible to make progress and be helpful, even when it seems like a conversation went around in circles and didn’t produce results.
People are not problems to be solved. We’re complex, we have different contexts that shape how we behave and what we believe. While it’s easy to identify beliefs or actions of others that we think are wrong and need to be addressed, it’s much harder to do so in a way that respects their agency and intelligence and doesn’t merely satisfy our own impulses and desire to be right.
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