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.


2 thoughts on “Engaging in Difficult Dialogue

  1. Thanks, Susan– I think I described the the view of the other person as genuine and principled as a “rebuttable presumption,” a term which is familiar to us lawyers (and hopefully to our students).

    My ideas of principled disagreement come largely out of our discussions, of course. St. Thomas is a great place for that!

  2. How true! – And easy to enjoy continued comfort among like minded; to savor comfort and increased encouragement to reinforce singular positions or beliefs – especially when espousing righteousness.

    Christ calls all to advocacy, through a message often partially understood and frequently reframed to further our point of view. “Tough Topics” become crystallized through our lens, while the implications to our words and actions become obscured by solidarity – accountability, often only at a time of His choosing.

    It takes courage (and faith) to advocate for the minority secure in the knowledge blessings abound.

    The majority position offers the most comfort without pledging allegiance to another. It allows for exploration and advocacy through multiple lenses of the opposing point of view along with opportunity to expand, strengthen and understand the dynamics of the topic – as reason may begin to permeate and wisdom glimmer.

    To stand among the minority requires courage while often risking comfort. Such action also conveys more blessings – though not always at a time of our choosing. However, more emphasis on listening is required as a path forward is much more difficult to craft – reinforcing the reality of a journey more marathon than sprint. Governing and social/religious justice have always been a process, not mantra or doctrine repeated – as they should.

    How curious to march behind Christ’s banner(s) while selectively embracing His message.

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