Engaging in Difficult Dialogue

Yesterday I attended a lunchtime talk by my friend and colleague, Mark Osler, sponsored by Lex Vitae, a non-partisan pro-life student organization at the law school “ordered toward the goal of protecting human life from conception to natural death.” Mark spoke about engaging in dialogue on difficult topics, such as abortion and the death penalty.

Some of the suggestions he made for engaging in such dialogue are broadly applicable to dealing with people with whom we disagree. That is particularly true of his first suggestion, which was to always assume that the person on the other side of an argument is operating based on principles that are important to the person. The principles may not be the same as our own, but they are principles that matter to the person. Too often parties to a “discussion” assume the person on the other side is unprincipled, mean-spirited, bigoted, etc. That sort of attitude makes it more likely the “discussion” will end up being an attack on the other person, leading to nothing positive.

The only way to meaningfully engage with another with whom we disagree is to understand the principles from which they operate and to respect that those principles are important to them.

As Mark and I agreed afterward, there may be situations where the other person is, in fact, unprincipled (and during his talk he did express one caveat to this first suggestion). Nonetheless, we do far better if our opening assumption is more generous. Better to be wrong in assuming another was principled when they weren’t than to incorrectly write off another person.

Update: Mark reminded me, in his comment below, that he expressed this assumption that the other is acting based on principle is a rebuttable presumption, which is a helpful reminder.