In recent times, “bipartisan friendships,” such as those between John Kerry and John McCain or Fred Malek and Madeleine Albright, have been lauded for exemplifying a willingness to work together and listen to one another. But while such discussions are admirable in theory, when you actually apply these expectations to people, they can be unrealistic and unfair.
Listening is important, and if more people entered conversations with open hearts and minds, there is no doubt that we could have more productive conversations and more world peace. However, one can’t always expect people to enter conversations with a degree of openness when someone opposes fundamental traits that are central to one’s beliefs.
If someone enters a conversation believing that they are smarter or morally superior than the person to whom they speak, there is a good chance that the conversation is doomed from the start. Divisions aren’t always about party lines either. Sometimes the differences are just about how one perceives things like affirmative action, reproductive rights or any topic from a laundry list of hot-button issues.
Nowadays, there has to be a set of increasingly rare conditions for people to come to the table and discuss their differing views without descending into chaos or wanton bickering. People first have to set aside their ego, their preconceived notions and most importantly, their fears and aspirations.
Sometimes, people enter conversations with a defensive mindset because they believe that people with differing opinions hate them or judge them, which is not always the case. However, if that is the case, then people have to move on without letting that experience define their perception of anyone who differs from them.
One thing that inhibits the potential for conversation is the desire to change the minds of people with dissenting opinions. It is highly unlikely that someone will be unable to change someone else’s mind regarding their deeply held beliefs in the span of one conversation.
Finding similarities and common ground with other people is great and is something that we should practice more, but beyond that, for productive conversations to take place, there has to be an understanding and a level of respect for our differences.
All that being said, there are times when people should not be expected to learn from one another when it involves deeply personal issues. Having to explain to someone the right to exist and live life as one sees fit can be a degrading and frustrating experience that reminds a person of how hopeless things can seem and, in these cases, no one should have to converse about who they are or what they believe.
People don’t go through life only dealing with like-minded people. In fact, encountering people with different opinions can make us better people who are willing to step outside of ourselves. While it’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done when it comes to hearing one another, there is no one size fits all approach.