So, did the conversation at your family’s Christmas dinner turn to religion or politics?  And if it did, how did it go?

Here’s a story about my experience with conversations about religion and, to a lesser degree, with politics.

Fifteen years ago I started writing for the Forest Park Review and the Wednesday Journal.  In that time I’ve written around one hundred articles about religion—everything from an atheist to a pastor who was dying from ALS to a man who is a member of the Nation of Islam.  

In the hundred interviews I conducted, I did not agree completely with what any of the people with whom I was talking said.  Sometimes what they said sounded outrageous to me.  Often I wanted to argue with them and show them the right way to think/believe.  The title of James Hoggan’s book—I’m Right and You’re an Idiot—comes to mind to describe how I felt.

But here’s the thing.  The job of a reporter is not to tell the person being interviewed what the reporter thinks. The job of a reporter is to listen so carefully to what the persons being interviewed are saying so carefully that when they read the article in the paper, they respond with, “He got me right.  What he wrote might be a little embarrassing, but he painted a verbal portrait which was true to who I am.”

What happened was that almost by accident, I discovered that when my primary intention was to understand where people were in their relationship with God, they frequently allowed themselves to become vulnerable and share very personal stories.  When they came to believe that my sole purpose in the conversation was to understand where they were coming from, walls came down and bridges were built.

They became less defensive and, perhaps counter intuitively, they sometimes asked me questions about what I believed.

After trying to figure out what kept happening in these interviews, I came to the conclusion that how I frame a conversation about religion or politics makes a huge difference.  When I approach a discussion about religion as a win/lose battle, I shift into what Jonathan Haidt calls a “combat mode.”  Because my goal is to win an argument, while the other person is talking, I’m not really listening but mentally going through my talking points for the purpose of defeating my perceived opponent.

But when I understand that how people feel—and that’s the key word, feel—about politics or religion is not irrational but a-rational, then I understand that trying to change them by using rational arguments is not only futile but disrespectful as well.

Haidt wrote a book titled The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, in which he quotes, of all people, Henry Ford.  “If there is any one secret of success,” Ford declared, “it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”

First lesson learned.  If you want to change someone’s mind, first empathize with how they feel.  In my interviewing, I tried to understand the people I was talking to not because I was such an empathic person but simply because I wanted to do my job well.  But in the process, I learned a valuable lesson—conversations about religion and politics can be wonderful IF YOUR GOAL IS NOT TO WIN AN ARGUMENT BUT TO BRIDGE DIFFERENCES.

Second lesson learned.  If I try hard to walk in the other person’s sneakers for a mile or two, I may discover that they have something to teach me.  For example I have this fantasy that during the tax reform debate Nancy Pelosi is listening to Paul Ryan, and when it’s her turn to speak, she says, “You know Paul.  I think you may be at least partly right about lowering corporate taxes so we are more competitive with China.  How about we go out for a beer on the way home and help me better understand where you’re coming from?”

And then according to this very optimistic scenario and after a couple beers, Paul would say to Nancy, “Hey Nance, off the record you understand, I get why you have to have a mandate to make health care for every American doable.”

Third lesson learned.  When I genuinely attempt to understand people who think differently than I do, they might become less defensive, stop thinking “if I give an inch, he’ll take a mile,” and begin to edge closer to seeing my point of view.

“If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter,” wrote Haidt, “you’ll need to see things from that person’s point of view as well as your own.”

“Empathy,” he added, “is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very hard to empathize across a moral divide.”

Which brings me to the Christmas story.  Whether you believe the story really happened or not, the story that takes place in Bethlehem is a timely example of what I learned in my interviewing.  According to the story, God was not getting his point across to us intractable, obdurate, bullheaded, recalcitrant, stiff-necked, implacable humans so he made the ultimate empathic act and became human.

Not that I see it from God’s point of view most of the time myself.  But when I try to get into that story about God’s empathy for the human condition—for my condition—God has a better chance of getting through to me that where he’s coming from is really where I want to go.