Talking across the political divide

Some 25 years ago, a rabbi and a bishop in Argentina agreed on a time and place to sit together and talk. Their conversation focused on life, from local society to global concerns. They met again and again, with each conversation focused on a different topic and without compromising their distinct religious identities. Each respects the other and listens without casting judgment. The result: a lasting friendship and deeper understanding of each one’s religion.

Last week, Rabbi Abraham Skorka shared the story of his friendship with the bishop — now Pope Francis — during a talk in Grinnell, Iowa, that also covered the two religious leaders’ steadfast commitment to interfaith dialogue. In a book they co-authored in 2010, “On Heaven and Earth,” then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio observed: “Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation.” Words of advice each of us should print on a sticky note and post on the bathroom mirror.

Two months ago, the Franciscan Peace Center sponsored “Better Angels” workshops at the Canticle in Clinton to help participants gain skills to foster respectful dialogue on both sides of the political divide. One participant said afterwards that she felt more optimistic. She learned that people on the other side of the political divide had much more in common with her than she would have imagined.

More of us need to make that discovery, beginning with reflection on church teachings. The Catechism states that “Respect for the human person considers the other ‘another self.’ It presupposes respect for the fundamental rights that flow from the dignity intrinsic of the person (No. 1944).” It is part of God’s plan that people are different from one another. “These differences should encourage charity (No. 1946).”

“Better Angels” describes itself as a citizens’ organization uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America (www.better-angels.org). The alliance provided practical, doable goals and principles for engaging in respectful, responsible dialogue at the Clinton workshops. This guidance was tailored toward people on opposing sides of the political divide who know each other. Charity, after all, begins at home.

Core principles:

• Respect, curiosity and openness tend to elicit the same response from the other person.
• Everyone needs to save face.
• Most people in a relationship have some common values and concerns that can be unearthed.
Expectations to abandon:
• That you can persuade the other person to change core values and beliefs.
• That facts will be agreed on and logic followed consistently.
• That your conversation partner will match your openness.

Cautions:

• Start a conversation during a calm moment.
• Try conversation only with someone you think might want to hear your point of view.
• Practice one-on-one conversation first.
• Don’t practice this conversation online.
Tone-setting skills:
• Convey your desire to understand other perspectives better.
• Ask permission to pose questions.
• Acknowledge your political stance.
• Offer a criticism of your own side and something positive about the other side.

Listening skills:

• Paraphrase to make sure you understand — and the other person feels heard.
• Ask honest questions of understanding instead of “gottcha” questions.
• Ask your conversation partner how s/he came to their view.
• Listen for underlying values.

Speaking skills:

• Use “I” statements more often than truth statements (This is how it is).
• Use “I’m concerned/worried/troubled” expressions rather than definitive statements (“This is what will happen” when referring to the future).
• Before expressing disagreement, acknowledge that you have heard what the other person had to say.
• Aim for “Yes, and” rather than “Yes, but” responses.
• If you feel strongly about an issue, say something about life experiences that have led you to be passionate about it.
• Soften flat-out disagreements by signaling that your perspective is very different.

“One of the principles of nonviolence is that we all have a piece of the truth,” says Lori Freudenberg, Community Outreach director for the Franciscan Peace Center. Future workshops are being planned. If you’re interested in more information, contact Freudenberg at (563) 242-7611 or visit the website: www.clintonfranciscans.com.

Dialogue across the political or religious divide requires patience and a willingness to step into the other person’s shoes. It might even lead to friendship.

Barb Arland-Fye, Editor
(arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org.)

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