I recall my grandfather say once, “the more someone speaks the more likely he or she will say something dumb.” I agree with him. It is always better to listen more and to speak less. Unfortunately today in society everyone speaks, but not many listen. The number of outlets to express opinions has rapidly multiplied in the last few decades – I venture to say that the internet has so much information that several lifetimes would not be enough to read it all.
Though millions are connected today, not many are communicating. The art of a dialogue between two people appears to have been replaced mostly by one way arguments that aim to crush the other person rather than to debate fairly with facts. Disagreement over ideas erroneously leads to vicious personal attacks. This is the case not only in politics, but also in religion, marriage, law, and many other areas. Without respect for the other, effective communication is impossible.
When I was in college, a history professor enjoyed recreating significant historical debates that occurred in Congress. The students did not choose which side to argue, it was assigned. So I found myself once arguing as the South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun in the 1832 Nullification Crisis and for another assignment I was the Kentucky Senator Henry Clay in the debate which led to the Compromise of 1850 (these two crises of US history are little known but were significant paving stones of the civil war). This historical exercise stretched me, forcing me to understand completely the point of view of another person. I did not have to agree with the argument, but I had to understand it thoroughly.
In order to move forward with constructive and effective dialogue, especially in today’s political scene, there is a need for better understanding of “the other.” This goes both ways. I must know and understand where I stand, and must equally know and understand where my adversary stands. I cannot make assumptions nor can I make personal judgements, I need facts. I must listen to the arguments of my opponent and respect his or her personal conviction. My opponent is a human being like I am, with a different background and way of thinking, but my opponent demands respect. I may not agree, but I do not have a right to rip him or her apart.
Some time ago I entered a local bank to take care of some business. I was greeted by the young banker and as he helped me, he asked me how long I had been a priest and how I had received my call. This led to a long and pleasant conversation about the spiritual life, parables, the importance of daily prayer and the Holy Spirit. He was not Catholic, we had different insights, and there was respect. What a welcomed dialogue in the midst of such negativity and constant division! A true encounter with another person involves more listening and less talking, facilitating constructive dialogue. In this manner the truth emerges in love and respect.