“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” – Bryant H. McGill
For a large chunk of the English speaking world, 2016 has been a divisive political year. Between the Brexit vote in the UK and the American presidential race, we have seen very sharp lines drawn between people with opposing opinions. If you lived in either of these countries, odds are high that you were drawn into a political argument or two. Given how much these two decisions affect international economics and politics, you probably faced a conversation even if you lived elsewhere.
Having grown up in a very conservative state, but now living in a more liberal one, I know people across the entire political spectrum. I also enjoy debates, so I’ve gotten into some interesting discussions and even out-and-out arguments with various people, including my mother-in-law. We have conflicting opinions on just about every subject. We can also both be stubborn at times, each with a passion in believing we individually have the “right” answers. We’ve discussed issues in person and also on social media platforms.
Recently, we took one of our debates onto Facebook, where mutual relatives could see our responses. We each had our say to each other, and some of our friends also chimed in. I thought the heat had died down on that discussion when a relative of ours wrote that I had crossed the line and made character attacks on my mother-in-law.
This accusation mortified me. I went back and re-checked all my statements. While I did throw around the word “moral” a few times and asked her questions based on ethics, I did not see where I had made an outright character assault. I certainly did not feel I had called her names. However, the line between opinion and derision isn’t always so clear. Maybe a few of my lines could be read as insulting. When I re-read some of her statements, I found areas where I could have chosen to interpret them as character attacks on me (although I did not think that was her intent, and I still do not interpret them that way).
This made me wonder about the purpose of debate at all. Especially on very contentious issues where each side has strong opinions, you are not likely to change anyone’s mind. In my near decade of discussions with my mother-in-law, I doubt either of us has made much of a dent on each other’s core moral values. We have made up our minds given our experiences, and barring some catastrophic event, we are unlikely to be swayed from our viewpoints. So why risk the potential hurt feelings?
My mother-in-law replied on the thread, mortified herself that she might have insulted me. She said that she had laid out her opinion, she never meant to hurt anyone, and said thank you for the opportunity to speak. She then promised to bow out of the conversation.
This could have been the end of it, but again, I was dissatisfied. Clearly, we were not going to change each other’s minds, but on the flip side, there is a gift in listening to someone with a dissenting view, even if you vehemently disagree. In all the times my mother-in-law and I have exchanged heated words over a topic, it has never affected our personal relationship. We could always end the debate with agreeing to disagree. I know she is a good person at her core, and I believe that she thinks the same of me.
So I returned to the discussion thread and thanked my mother-in-law, not because I agreed with her, but because she was brave enough to have the conversation. She needed to have her voice heard as much as I needed mine heard.
I’ve heard many arguments that defending your opinion means nothing, that presenting an opposing argument with someone who has made up their mind is a waste of time. I must respectfully disagree. It’s a sign of mutual respect and trust in being able to say what you believe and knowing your loved ones will listen, even if they never agree. In the absence of discussions, many negative feelings can fester – anger, resentment, frustration. In those few relationships in which I feel I cannot fully express my thoughts and feelings, I have certainly felt limited in how far that relationship can form.
The fact that my mother-in-law and I can have heated arguments and yet still be comfortable around each other is a strength in our relationship, not a weakness. It is exactly because we have our exchanges that we are able to at least understand each other, if only on an emotional level. Only then can we put aside our differences and still focus on what matters most: our family and loving each other.