Finding Common Ground

-by Bill Plake-

To say that we are living politically and socially turbulent times these days would be an understatement.

As differences in our values and worldviews come into sharp contrast, so too do we tend to grow ever more passionate and (in many cases) inflexible about what we believe and hold dear to us.

I’m not writing today to speak about my own point of view concerning these topics.

Rather, I wish to relate a story about how I recently experienced a positive shift in my own attitude about listening to others with opposing views.

To be upfront, I too, have very strong opinions and feelings about today’s political climate. I consider myself to be well informed, deeply compassionate. Most people who know me consider me to be reasonably balanced/diverse in my choice of news sources. Judiciousness and flexibility of thought is important to me.

But like everybody else, I have bias that colors the information I take in. What I perceive to be “true” is conditioned by my own life experiences in conjunction with my desires and perceptions of what a more compassionate and just world would/should be.

So it’s no surprise to me when speaking with people who have sharply different opinions on these matters, for me to dig my heels in to defend my beliefs. I arm myself with facts and logic, which I often use as a blunt object to strike at my “opponents”. It’s my attempt to “neutralize” their points of view. 

This isn’t something I’m proud of. It’s just something I notice about myself, usually in hindsight. After debating “successfully” with someone, I’m typically left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve stood my ground and made valid points that successfully negate the merits of my opponent’s point of view.

On the other hand, I too often feel as if I’ve affronted the humanity of the person with whom I’m debating. This is never good. 

As some of you know, I’m a serious saxophonist, practicing daily and performing fairly regularly. I’m meticulous about caring for my instruments and have been taking them to the same repair tech for nearly 30 years now. He is a master craftsman, and there is nobody I trust more to do this work.

As the years have gone by, the dynamics of my relationship with him have changed significantly. It went from friendly, but businesslike, to gradually more casual.

Eventually, it even became more personal, both of us talking about our children, our upbringings (he’s Jewish and was born and raised in a predominantly Muslin enclave in southern Russia). 

About ten years ago, our conversations began to move towards politics and culture. To put it mildly, I was surprised (and even confused) by how his opinions seemed to me so incompatible with his upbringing. 

Now clearly, some of my “surprise” is based upon my own stereotypes of what I thought he “should” value and believe. These stereotypes were shaped by my travels throughout the world (including southern Russia), coupled with my knowledge of history and culture. 

They were my stereotypes, nonetheless. 

In the past three years or so, it had become almost unbearable for me to go see him. Within minutes of walking into his shop, he would engage/provoke me with what felt like to me increasingly outrageous and incredible (literally “not believable! “) political opinions. 

My habitual reaction was to clash with him, attacking his “facts” with actual, measurable data. After calling into question his ulterior motives behind his so-called virtues. I’d then have to suffer through his rather intense retorts to my assertions. I usually left his shop feeling exhausted.

The entire process had grown quite unpleasant for me. It got to the point where I had to balance out the need for repair work against the suffering I had to endure while engaging him in a debate. 

As time went by, I (unconsciously) began to seek his work less and less frequently, even if it meant playing on an instrument that was less than optimally functional. (This, too, made me unhappy.)

So the last time I went to see him was when there was something seriously wrong with my tenor saxophone. And sure enough, not long after I arrived at his shop, he began to rant, attempting to provoke.

But this time, I did something different. 

I listened to him…

I mean I truly listened to what he had to say, to every sentence, to every word, from start to finish, without interrupting. All this happened without me doing what I always did in the past (which was to formulate in my head a response to what he was saying, even before he finished saying it). 

When I did speak, what I found myself doing instead surprised me. 

I asked questions. The questions were not so many questions about facts/data. They were about his values, his history, his experiences, his beliefs. My questions were never inflammatory or condescending, but sincerely curious.

I was truly curious about how he came to see the world the way he did. As I calmly asked more questions, something remarkable happened. He began to soften his tone, to open his heart, to speak of his pain, of his dreams and disappointments. I began to interject some of my own experiences that paralleled his own.

The tempo and color of our entire conversation shifted dramatically. It was no longer a question of whether we had incompatible values. Instead, moments emerged where we both could finally see each other’s deeper humanity.

We had found common ground. 

This doesn’t mean that he changed my mind, nor did I change his. It just means that we, for that brief period, realized that our seemingly contradictory viewpoints came from a tender place, from loss, pain, love, and hope. From our own personal values.

For the first time in years, I left his shop feeling calm, and even enriched and satisfied. 

He told me as I was walking out the door that I was the first person (including his family!) who actually listened to him without trying to assault his beliefs or change his mind. I’d never before, in 30 years, heard him speak to me with that kind of warmth and gratitude. I could feel his change of heart. I drove home feeling transformed.

It’s not easy to listen to somebody when their opinions seem so abhorrent, so antithetical to what you find right and true. And I’m not saying that, when somebody spouts off hateful speech, you shouldn’t stand up. You should, and especially if it involves defending the defenseless.

But there is something to be said about waiting. About listening with your heart. About trying to understand the other person’s pain. It’s possible that many of us have more in common than we otherwise might think.

“Compassionate listening is to help the other side suffer less. If we realize that other people are the same as we are, we are no longer angry at them.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

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