By Lisa Gottlieb
Hurtling through the sky in a packed jet at 30,000 feet, it’s hard to get away from the person crammed in to the seat next to you. Recently, I was on a 90-minute connecting flight and had an opportunity to practice what is important to me: sharing a conversation with someone with very different political opinions from mine. My goal was to listen with an open mind in an attempt to connect with this person’s humanity, instead of judging and blaming him for today’s problems. The key? First empathy for my self as I felt reactive to what he was saying, and then the emotional stretch to have empathy for him.
This white, 40-something rural Montanan male, with a stay-at-home wife and a baby on the way, shared his feelings about living in Montana and his desire for freedom from government oversight. He expressed bewilderment regarding “what all the fuss was about” over our current president and his administration. I asked if he was interested in my views, and he was, so soon we were talking about things that I think are important to consider: systemic racism, issues of social justice, gender equity at work, choice for women in health care, awareness of privilege and its impact and the value of protesting to support our beliefs. We disagreed about every one of these issues, and I felt the tension between us.
Connecting with the person behind the opinion
This conversation provided an opportunity for me to listen for the universal human needs underneath his responses, and find where we might be able to connect around those shared needs, instead of digging deeper into all the ways that we disagreed. What’s the point, you might ask? I won’t change his mind, and he likely won’t change mine. The point is, until I am able to see this man for his humanity and his values, and for him to see me the same way, I am losing an opportunity to build a bridge of understanding between us, which is essential to create change. By the end of the flight, we parted ways with mutual respect and a bit more connection between us; two people with very different views, who agreed that truly listening to each other has value.