– George Bernard Shaw
When tempers are frayed, and an argument is in progress, it is very difficult for anyone to listen with courtesy to an opposing point of view. If we could ask the mind on such occasions why it doesn’t listen, it would answer candidly, “Why should I? I already know I’m right.” We may not put it into words, but the other person gets the message: “You’re not worth listening to.” It is this lack of respect that offends people in an argument, much more than any difference of opinion.
But respect can be learned – in part by acting as if we had respect. We show respect by simply listening with complete attention. Try it and see: the action is very much like that of a classical drama. For a while there is “rising action.” The other person’s temper keeps going up; language becomes more and more vivid; everything is heading for a climax. But then comes the denouement. The other person begins to quiet down: his voice becomes gentler, his language kinder, all because you have not retaliated or lost your respect for him.
I've embroiled myself in more face-to-face and online arguments than I care to remember. There have been literally hundreds if not thousands of them. I'm the first to admit that I often enjoyed the heat of battle, the adrenaline rush that lifted me out of my torpor, the triumphant sense of having gotten the better of my opponent. But these ephemeral feelings of pleasure were often overridden by feelings of frustration, hostility, and anger that were the longer lasting byproducts of my habitual argumentativeness. And, in the end, I rarely experienced the feeling I wanted most--a heartwarming meeeting of minds and hearts born of mutual regard and respect.
When I speak of a "meeting of minds and hearts," I don't necessarily mean mutual agreement on everything. I mean acknowledging whatever truths or plausible points the other person may state and honoring his or her humanity and divine essence. In short, I mean that what I've wanted more than the thrill of victory in debate is the profound reconciliation of dialogue--the ultimate sense that we cherish each other as persons more than we disagree with each other's beliefs.I've paid lip service to this ideal for a long time, but I was never able to do well at following through with the kind of conduct that would foster it. I was too ready to express disagreement with another's religious or political beliefs, and even if I started out trying to be calm and respectful in the way I went about it, all of that tended to fly out the proverbial window the first time I perceived an insult to come from the other side. I quickly lost sight of the other person's humanity, not to mention "divine essence," and saw him or her as an enemy to be defended against, defeated, or even humiliated. Yes, there was a "still, small voice within" that counseled me to pursue my ideal of dialogue, but it was frequently overpowered by the voice that said, "Sic 'em!"
The part of me that speaks with that voice has retained the upper hand even into very recent times. But I've worked especially hard lately to overcome it. I still disagree with or challenge people at times over what they say, but I don't let myself take it personally and wind myself up if they respond in a manner that I would previously have found upsetting. And I try to listen, really listen with regard and respect to what they say. I usually find that there is something of value in their words and perspective, and I try to incorporate that into my heart and mind.
If I could do this consistently, if we could all do this consistently, the way Easwaran suggests, what difference might it make between persons, groups, and even entire nations? We often don't do it consistently, even when we try, because it's difficult, damned difficult to respect people who disagree with us, especially if they do it disagreeably. But even if we don't feel respect for them in our hearts at first, we can act as though we do in the ways we speak to them and act around them, and our hearts can follow.
This is how I want to live the rest of my life, and this is the kind of world in which I want to live the rest of my life. How about you?