Last month I attended triservice Disaster Management classes in San Antonio, TX. We did many team simulations and during a break I chatted with a teammate, Sarah, a Navy environmental health officer. She had only been in uniform a few months, previously working as an environmental lobbyist in Washington DC. A single female in her mid-30s, she was a self-described liberal, and after class she was going to Austin, which she described as a “little blue dot in a sea of red”.
Pundits might classify Sarah and I on different ends of the political spectrum, and I was curious about her views. We chatted a few moments about economic inequality, and at the next break I asked her to continue with her thoughts. She hesitated. Sarah said “these conversations start from different points” and they end “without either person having convinced the other”. I responded, “yes”, but to convince the other person is not the main point of a conversation; the main point of such discourse is to build relationships. She seemed a little surprised, but began sharing, and we had a fine discussion.
Sarah was absolutely right, but different groups (whether left and right, black and white, or female and male) need to talk to each other. We lament paralysis in Washington, but if we are a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we have only ourselves to blame. Reagan was famous for showing members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, a good time. His purpose, however, was not crass manipulation but real relationship building. Once leaders build trust, genuine compromise for the good of the Nation becomes possible.
What is true for America is true for every person in it. We need to think hard about how and why we talk. There are many reasons why people converse:
1. Share information – such as friends talking about the weather
2. Entertain – such as a raconteur telling tall tales to a crowd
3. Convince – such as a lawyer presenting her case before a jury
4. Manipulate – such as a saleswoman trying to entice a shopper to buy a dress
5. Threaten – such as a father warning a disobedient son of consequences to bad behavior
6. Catharsis – such as a woman pouring her soul out to someone else hoping that he will listen, understand, and help share her pain.
7. Boast – such as a man describing his money and accomplishments to impress his friends.
8. Win the argument in the eyes of a third party – such as a formal debate. Neither side cares what the opposing side thinks; they want to impress the third party.
9. Encourage – such as cheering up a friend who has fallen on hard times.
10. Many others
Regardless of our intent, however, when we talk to someone else, whether a person or God, something more fundamental happens; we our relationship changes. Speaking only of superficial matters ensures that your relationship will be superficial. Manipulating or threatening someone to make them do your bidding ensures that you will feel superior and they will feel inferior. Both damage a relationship. On the other hand, teaching and encouraging will strengthen everyone involved, and the bonds between them.
Skeptics may object, saying that they neither have nor want relationships with most of the people that they talk to. Whether they like it or not, however, we all are related as humans. When we meet, even if only through a word or a glance, a deeper relationship develops. Everything that occurs thereafter will strengthen or weaken the ties that bind us together.
We might manipulate someone into giving us money, but money passes away. We might win a debate and even a political office, but jobs end. We might get lots of acclaim as an entertainer, but glory dims. On the contrary, since each person lives forever, relationships are the most important things in our lives.
Last summer our church youth choir was returning on a bus from our mission trip to Chicago. My daughter Anna was sitting behind me and across the aisle from Heather, one of her friends. Anna was feeling a little sassy that day and when I said something, Anna retorted hard. Heather exclaimed “Oh, smack-down!” I asked Heather what she meant by that, and she said “Well, Anna won the argument.” “What argument?” I replied. What I saw as a chance to learn from each other, she saw as a battle for superiority.
We all have both pleasant and unpleasant conversations. We all have some we view as learning and some we view as “smack downs”. In part, this is because the other party sees it that way. Nevertheless, while we cannot control how someone else sees a discourse with us, we can control how we see it. When we threaten, manipulate, and boast, our relationships will suffer. When we learn, teach, and encourage, they will prosper.
Sarah and I talked, and on some points we disagreed without being disagreeable. I may never see her again, but we parted with a relationship just a little bit stronger than it was before. The conversation was worth it.