I remember hearing a story about how German generals hated to talk to Adolph Hitler because he would always launch into lengthy diatribes about his own vision or views about warfare. He refused to listen when those more experienced brought him different opinions than he wanted to hear. In fact, everyone one who came to him about any subject had to endure such lectures. He was as much a dictator in his conversations as in his politics. The sad truth is that too many people approach conversations this way. They want only an echo chamber for their own views. As a result, they miss out on true communication and friendship.
Until recently, open discussion was a key component of all education. When I was an undergraduate, colleges brought in speakers of all political persuasions to discuss a range of issues, most of them controversial. Students were expected to sit politely and listen to others. Classes were full of discussions, some friendly and some heated, about the issues of the day. This really had three impacts. One was to expose people to multiple points of view to make students “well-rounded.” That meant that you could at least explain other points of view even if you disagreed. In debate club, we often had to argue positions that weren’t our own, which would have been impossible without this ability. Second, it helped you to sympathize with other points of view. You understood why people saw things the way they did, which made you better able to find solutions on which all could agree. Believe it or not, there once was a time when people of opposing parties could come together and find common ground and develop bipartisan solutions; most that passes as bipartisan today is simply the result of finding someone willing to agree with your side without changing anything. Finally, listening to others helped you to see that it was nothing personal. People of different political parties ended up as friends because they could listen to each other, like President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Sadly, more and more, it seems that this inclusive attitude is giving way to political correctness, in which people do not tolerate the speech of anyone who has differing perspectives.
It is no surprise that intellectual and spiritual leaders always welcome conversation, even with those that disagree. For example, C.S. Lewis was at one time the president of the Oxford Socratic Club. The purpose of the club was to have formal debates and open discussions about the existence of God – all were welcome. Even Lewis had to adjust his thinking after debating Elizabeth Anscombe, who, although she believed in God, questioned some statements by Lewis as logically unsupportable. Dorothy Sayers was a member of a similar organization, the Society of St. Anne, in which skeptics and believers met for debate and discussions. For Charles Williams, it was the Theological Smokers, hosted by the Methodist Church, in which young men met over cigarettes to discuss theological issues. Even the Inklings itself, although a somewhat exclusive group of writers, held open discussions on issues related to religion and literature, though they each came from different backgrounds and held different views on many subjects. It was this group of friends that ultimately led Lewis to believe in God.
Too many refuse to talk with others about issues on which they may disagree, or if they do, they treat others rudely. I was raised to openly discuss issues, but years of participating in debates led me to treat conversations similarly. It was always a game of one-up-manship, coming up with better arguments than other people and trying to “win” the discussion. There was always a tendency to dominate the conversation, give arguments in logical order, and immediately answer any questions or comments. When losing the debate, I would often cut people off or try to talk over them to get in my points. Since I usually debated issues about which I cared deeply, I became emotionally involved and took criticism personally. Only as I grew as an adult did I realize that such antics only alienated my friends. I learned that some of the people who criticized me the heaviest were in fact my greatest allies. Too frequently, I missed out on holding deep conversations with people on subjects. I may not have changed my views or anyone else’s, but I would have at least come to a better understanding of my friends and their perspective. It’s a lesson that many people desperately need to learn – how to hold a conversation that is open, honest, and a meeting of minds.
Some people believe the purpose of conversations is to win arguments and gain converts. This is the approach most people take whenever discussing anything controversial. They talk louder, bring out all their supporting arguments, and cut off those who may disagree. Real conversations, however, are always two-way. They are a meeting of the minds to gain shared understanding, not only of the topics, but of each other. If so, most of us have been failing at conversations for years. If we ever want to see a return of civility and unity, we must relearn to the art of conversation. For those who are ready to have a conversation without angst or condemnation, know that you are welcome here. Even if it’s something controversial or even if I disagree, let’s talk about it.
© 2021 J.D. Manders