I love a great conversation: the give and take of passionate people exploring ideas, considering what the other person is saying, responding, conceding where the argument is weak, and pushing forward where the argument is strong.
I spent the better part of three decades trying to create a space for fair discussion and open dialogue. One on one or in conversation with proponents of different perspectives, my job was to prod participants to acknowledge they heard what the person across the table had said. It was a way to show that even if the participants didn’t acknowledge it, those of us listening validated different viewpoints.
My least favorite topic was the Middle East conflict. This is a terror-filled, bloody struggle. For a Palestinian doctor whose clinic had been bombed, for an Israeli soldier who watched three friends die in a bomb blast at a checkpoint, it could be very hard to hear beyond the reverberations of death. But loud voices and locked minds don’t move us beyond conflict.
The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Oxford, Mississippi has a wonderful approach to getting dialogue going. The institute brings blacks and whites together to talk. It offers baby steps to people afraid and uncertain of how to express their prejudice, fear, and hopes. It is an approach to healing and dialogue similar groups could take in the Middle East. The institute proposes one simple notion that I admire for its subtle power: when talking with another person, rather then being overwhelmed with anger at a disagreeable statement, turn to wonder. Stop. Take a breath. Say to that person, as politely as you can, “I wonder why you say that? I wonder why you feel that way?” That’s all. Then wait for the answer.
Wonder is infectious. We nurtured our wonder as children. We wondered about all those blue skies, biting bugs, and sad parents that we did not understand. We wondered. We learned. It seems it is the best we can do even as adults. Turn to wonder. Listen. It may even foster wonder in the person you are talking to. They may take their turn at it. You may even part company feeling that you have been heard.
Rabbi Ted Falcon
For the past 14 years, I have been the rabbinic partner of the Interfaith Amigos. Along with Pastor Don Mackenzie and Imam Jamal Rahman, we have presented at colleges, universities, and houses of worship across the country. We are no strangers to difficult conversations. When encountering those who want to convince us how right they are and how wrong we are, we begin by asking, “Is there anything we can say that would change your mind?” Their response is usually, “No.” “You mean,” we continue, “there is absolutely nothing we could say that would change your mind about this?” When they say, “No,” we respond, “Okay. We’d like you to imagine that is exactly the same for us. Now let’s talk.”
Once it is mutually acknowledged that we don’t have to waste our time trying to convince the other, it often becomes possible to meet each other as human beings. We may not change minds, but we might open hearts and all emerge the better for it. Over the years, we have found that the most difficult topic for interfaith discussions among the three Abrahamic traditions is the issue of Israel and Palestine. Many interfaith groups have to refrain from even approaching that issue in order to maintain their other activities. But such a discussion is most fraught with tension when engaged among Jews who hold different views. Emotions tend to run deep and preclude any significant dialogue.
We encourage beginning conversations by seeking common ground. When easily identified common ground eludes us, finding it needs to be the focus before sharing what divides us. Difficult conversations become impossible when we resort to demonizing those who hold opposing views. Establishing a point of view through intimidation will only work temporarily, if at all. Sometimes even friends need to begin with the question, “Is there anything I could say that would change your view on this matter?”