Digging in too deep for dialogue

By Jill Segger
November 15, 2010

Last week, an elderly man attributed several unpleasing characteristics to me because I was wearing a white poppy. My efforts to engage with him and to explain my reasons came to nothing because he was too angry and upset to listen.

Despite telling myself that I knew nothing of his history or the possible suffering which might have led to his outburst, I was left struggling with feelings of indignation and resentment. We had both failed and the gulf seemed unbridgeable.

But to accept that would be a counsel of despair, born out of anger. When we take up entrenched positions (not the same thing as holding strong convictions) we cannot see over the parapet. We have dug ourselves too deep for dialogue, so armoured and fortified that there is no chink where light might enter.

Enabling understanding - or at least acknowledging that a different view may have something to teach us – is made harder when we feel ourselves under attack. The hackles rise, indignation makes us prickly and defensive. Everyone is tempted to have the last word, to score the telling point.

Some positions seem so diametrically opposed that we fall into a weary acceptance that there are things which will never change. And they probably won't – unless we are willing to think beyond the laager.

In May this year, a group of Scottish Quakers and six soldiers had the courage, faith and imagination to do just that. The account of their worship-sharing and dialogue can be found in this article from a recent edition of The Friend http://thefriend.org/article/seeking-truth-with-power/

Where groups and individuals are able to act with the humility which makes connection possible, there are immense benefits to be gained. By laying down the speech and manner of indignant confrontation, a space is created in which difference may be heard with respect. There may be more common ground than initially perceived. There will almost certainly be a widening of perception and an increase in understanding.

The alternative course is to hunker down in sealed boxes of preconception and prejudice. We can go on throwing adversarial comments at each other (and yes, I know that journalists are as culpable as anyone in this area), or we can try to meet constructively with that which appears strange and may present us with difficulties.

Our small book of Quakerly discipline, Advices and Queries, challenges me: “When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

The encounter of creative listening between those soldiers and Quakers did not hit the national headlines. But it does offer a possible model for progress in a world riven by conflicting interests.

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