I find I keep having the same conversation with people. It’s a conversation about the great divide in the United States, the gulf between right and left, the seeming impossibility of agreeing about anything important. We all see the problem, but we’ve done nothing about.
Expressing frustration, almost desperation with the divide, a friend recently wrote to me: “Persuading right-leaning voters is damn tough. In the 2020 election, 70 million voters in the US voted for Trump. That is a lot of people [to persuade]. How does one persuade the bulk of those that they are following a path that ultimately leads to a diminishment of personal freedom, wealth, and even health?”
Rather intemperately (I hope he’s still talking to me), I wrote back: “You’re no different than the conservatives. The focus of your email is on what’s wrong with those other people. Exactly what the conservatives say [about you].
“The problem often is with the idealogue himself, not the other guy. You should be listening to responsible conservatives, not worrying about how to change their minds. They should be listening to you.”
I wasn’t that impressed when I first read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey thirty year ago, but I find I keep coming back to the lessons Covey teaches: First learn to be an independent person – that’s learning to be an adult. Then learn to be interdependent – that’s being a responsible adult. Habit 5 is one of the interdependent habits: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Conservatives have a lot of important things to say. Liberals have a lot of important things to say. Stop worrying about what you want to say to them; and start working at understanding what they’re saying to you.
The usual response from both conservatives and liberals is “I already know what they’re going to say.” In other words, “I don’t want to listen, I just want to talk.”
I’d suggest spending more time trying to understand what they’re saying and where you can find common ground with that. After that, maybe they’ll be willing to listen to you. That’s where the middle ground is.
A few weeks ago I was driving through rural New York State with a friend who is a liberal, maybe ultra-liberal, urban Democrat. Generalizing, she asked, “Why would these people vote for Trump?” She meant “Why would these relatively poor, underserved people stuck in these small towns vote for Trump?”
I said, “These people like their lives. Life proceeds at a nice, comfortable pace, there’s food on the table, families stay together, and the children don’t move too far from home. They get healthcare when they need it, maybe not the same quality as in the large cities, but it’s professional health care informed by scientific medical knowledge available everywhere. They don’t have a lot of people of color here; they aren’t patient with what seem to them to be demands for change when they see no need for change. They don’t need or want their government to do much for them, including making them wealthier, and they don’t want their government giving anything to anyone else, either. They don’t want their government telling them what they can do and can’t do. Their parents gave them their first gun when they were ten, and having a gun is a part of rural life. They don’t want their government taking their guns away.”
She might not have been willing to listen to one of “those people,” but she listened to me. She was silent. Actually, I kind of surprised myself. I could understand all of that, I could see why “those people” might prefer Trump’s policies, and even Trump’s in-your-face attitude, to Biden’s. That doesn’t mean I agree with all of that, but I can understand it. Those aren’t the rantings of some maniacal demon that must be stopped at all cost. In fact, imbedded in those thoughts are core American values – independence, self-reliance, home, family.
You know those 70 million people who voted for the other guy, the 70 million you simply can’t understand what they could be thinking? Well, those people don’t all live in some other part of the country. They live in your town, they work in your office or your shop or your restaurant. Their kids go to school with your kids. They aren’t the devil, and they aren’t your enemy. They are your neighbors and your friends. Their lives are much like yours, and they want the same things for themselves and their families as you do for yours. They like the same food, the same movies, the same sports. They are Americans, just like you.
Listen to those people. Seek first to understand. Don’t tell them what’s wrong with what they’re saying; they care deeply about what they are saying, just as you care about what you believe. Don’t think about what you want to say when it’s your turn. Just listen. Ask them to tell you what they want for the country, what they believe; ask them not to tell you what’s wrong with your viewpoint. Listen and ask questions to be sure you understand what they’re saying. Find the things you agree with. Find the common ground. It’s there. Then (and “then” may be another conversation, even another day), ask them to listen. Ask them not to argue with you, ask them simply to seek to understand what you’re saying.
Wouldn’t you think that one Republican Senator and one Democratic Senator could talk like that, undestand what is important to each, and find some common ground? One Republican Congressman and one Democratic Congressman?
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Can’t we start there? You and I?