Respect for the other in dialogue or debate requires careful listening. But, listening to another does not come easily to anyone. It requires discipline, self-control, and humility. Why humility? This virtue reminds us that we are not the only ones who have something important and beneficial to say. In fact, it teaches us that on some occasions we have nothing important and beneficial to say and, therefore, should listen to what others have to say. Our silence can contribute to the discussion.
While apparently listening, we should listen. That is, we should not be thinking of the next thing we are going to say while we tune out the one who is speaking. I must admit that I often do this. When I do, I am compelled to ask what the other person just said–rather embarrassing. Good listening requires an attentive, clear, uncluttered, focussed mind. Body language should indicate an attentive mind. To listen to another is one expression of the love of one’s neighbor.
Effective communication, whether there are two or more in conversation, requires everyone to have a commitment to attentiveness. When one of the parties does not understand, he should ask for clarification. Always remember to put pride aside so that you are not afraid to ask for the definition of terms and words you do not understand.
When in the conversation an important fact to the discussion is not known, make a commitment to research it. Never defend an idea without the facts. By the way, there is no such thing as a “true fact.” By its very definition a fact is true. “False facts” do not exist. If they do, they exist in another universe, not this one. False information does exist in this galaxy and universe
A counselling technique I learned in seminary is to repeat what the other person has said both to insure you have it right and to further the discussion. We use this technique in everyday conversation.
When we are speaking, we need to be as clear as we can. We should define the terms and words we use if we think it necessary to clarify without being patronizing. We need to admit mistakes when we are aware that we have taken a misstep. We should avoid attempts at manipulation or deception. We should manifest our beliefs and commitments, that is, our world view. We are to speak only the truth to the extent that we know it. When challenged, we are to keep our patience. When ridiculed, we are to keep our love. When we witness our goals are understanding and conversion.
Today there exists in our country a great divide in understanding. Several reasons account for this situation.
- Ideologies that people hold are widely divergent, e.g. secular materialism and Christian faith. A Civil (or Uncivil) War is being fought over ideas and world views. May this logomachy (war of words) never become a hot war among our people.
- People are often talking over each other and not listening first before their turn, e.g. on the news channels, all of which promote uncivil speech and rudeness. The media has produced a new type of gladiator. Outrageous speech is a relatively new sort of entertainment. My thumb is down, not on the people, but on the modern circus that coarsens our lives.
- Little effort is expended on compromise where an issue does not involve an essential belief or a known fact. In some cases, compromise can bring about fresh insights and new solutions to problems.
- Reputations are at stake. One does not want to lose one’s standing so does not admit false or harmful ideas when such are obvious.
- Hatred of other groups (race, nation, ethnic group, religion) remains a constant human factor and greatly distorts our conversations. The new tolerance is ironically intolerant, contributing nothing to civil discourse and, in fact, inhibiting it. One can add it to the list of prejudices.
- Political power is sought at the expense of truth.
- Ideologies sometimes make little room for the truth, because the truth may threaten the ideology’s credibility.
- The internet and other technologies make it easy for an individual to be rude and obnoxious without looking at one’s opponent eye to eye.
- American values are focussed on the old idols–power, fame, and money. Hypocrisy about what our values really are adds to the misery of the situation. All good things are sacrificed to them.
- No common ground exists on what is truth.
We need to remember that none of us is the center of the universe. We are not God or a god. We must unlearn what we have learned about self-esteem and enter the real world of people where relationships require a mutuality that self-centeredness and narcissism destroy. Our schools need a much more compelling foundation than self-esteem. What this would be without religion, I do not know. (See Neil Postman’s The End of Education. A good book that more effectively presents the problem than the solution). Education is not to be a godmaker. It is the church that prepares people for living the divine life in heaven and for serving others in this life.
Much greater commitment is required to increase civil discourse in America. At this time, little effort is expended on this most important requirement necessary for civil amity. The Church must promote respect both intramurally and extramurally.
We must continue to ask, do we understand one another? And, we must keep making the effort to understand.
Michael G. Tavella
September 9, 2019