September 21, 2019

A Small Victory for Civil Discourse

By Mary Keyes Rogers | Feb. 25, 2017

After this blistering election season and divisive first month of the new administration, one can only imagine how many friendships have been damaged or destroyed by the hot rage of political opinion. I’m not referring to the unfriending of the acquaintance of an acquaintance on social media. I mean terminating all contact with close friends, relatives, cherished neighbors and the like.

Life truly is so much more pleasant when we stay within our own ideological silos. I am as guilty of this as anyone. We trim our social circle like a bonsai tree, forcing it into an unnatural though aesthetically pleasing configuration. So, when we are confounded by the unfortunate discovery that our politics are in contrast to a dear and valued friend’s, what do we do?

My personal decision has been to avoid risky topics with good friends where conflicts arise. I am quite certain that, no matter how persuasive my language nor how compelling my facts and figures, we will never see eye to eye.

A most interesting thing happened to me when I visited friends downstate this past weekend. I want to share what I experienced and, more importantly, what I learned.

I was a guest in their home, as I have been many times. Over the years, we’ve raised our daughters of the same age, watched the decline and eventual passing of our parents, and learned how to make some fabulous cocktails in each other’s kitchens. Our shared appreciation for good coffee, guilt-free napping, and good conversation has kept us together.

We rarely stay on the topic of politics for more than a passing acknowledgment of the day’s headlines. Although we have much in common, I part ways with them on politics. And religion.

This was my first visit to their turf since the election and it is a very safe bet that I canceled one of their presidential votes. As per my playbook, I prefer to avoid the topics of politics or religion rather than risk damaging a valued friendship. I compartmentalize, as they say. And so I did not expect our weekend to include any such discussions.

I am here to tell you that it did happen, at length, and nobody died. In fact, I feel closer to each of them than before.

This small victory for civil discourse is entirely to my hosts’ credit. They were brave and I was not. Allow me to share.

Upon the first breath of political opinion (the Women’s March, if I recall correctly), I bit my lip, pulled my legs under me in the recliner and crossed my arms in an attempt to convey through my body language that I was shutting this conversation down. Much to my surprise and dismay, it continued.

I did not want to unleash my flying liberal monkeys upon my friends. Plan B: I would feign disinterest and maybe it would end quickly. As they spoke, I examined my foot with the intensity of a surgeon preparing to make the first incision. Mission failed.

I didn’t understand why this was happening. I thought we had an unspoken agreement that we didn’t speak of such things. This was a very definite and deliberate breach of the terms outlined in our Bipartisan Friendship Agreement.

My plan not working, the words continued and I began to feel panicky as I scrambled to devise a Plan C: non-engagement. I would allow eye contact but remain silent.  Holding back my own thoughts, I chose to allow a one-sided conversation to unfold. I suppose that because I had firmly committed to not sharing my thoughts, I stopped formulating any and found myself just listening. Listening, fancy that.

I was able to listen without judgment because I wasn’t preparing a response, rebuke or retort. Right then and there, I saw that I was the person in this conversation who had the problem. I came to realize that my friend wasn’t picking a fight. She was sharing her opinion. She wasn’t being nasty or self-righteous.

Instead of being defensive, I became curious. I found that, in this mode, I wasn’t just hearing and dismissing, I was actually listening.  The difference in my intent made all the difference. I was learning their core beliefs and thought processes that create their opinions while not exerting any effort to compare them to my own. Admittedly, my initial motivation was self-preservation, to keep my brain from exploding in their living room. But the result was a huge lesson for me to stop thinking when others are talking.

The tension in the air eased and the conversation flowed. I then shared my beliefs on the same issues without the purpose of persuasion or expectation of judgment. As the candles burned into the night, we shared our opposing views on immigration, guns, separation of church and state, and abortion.

I found it to be incredibly interesting. I disagree with their final conclusions, but I can understand how they came to them and why. I also acknowledge that they will not and could not see things the same way I do because they each have had completely different and unique life experiences that lead them in how they examine issues.

For the sake of our friendships, let us all practice the 5th of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Mary Keyes Rogers is an engaged citizen of Traverse City, certified small business consultant, writer, speaker and host of The Experience 50 Podcast For Midlife.


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