Guest commentary: Why can’t we talk: The death of constructive dialog


Disagreements are nothing new. As long as there have been people, choices and politics, there have been differences of opinion. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson disagreed strongly on the role of the central government and the states in the new political system, yet both are considered “Founding Fathers” who worked together to create a new nation and national identity. 

“Agreeing to disagree” and working together for a common good despite difference of opinion have been replaced with intolerance for opposing viewpoints and a refusal to work with those of dissimilar perspectives. 

A recent (2016) Pew survey on political partisanship revealed a widespread contempt for Republicans among Democrats and for Democrats among Republicans. For the first time in Pew history, majorities in both parties expressed very unfavorable views of the other party. A significant number of respondents vilified those holding opposing views as closed-minded, immoral, lazy, dishonest and unintelligent (stupid). This is deeply troubling and does not bode well for the future of our democracy. 

Francesca Gino, Harvard Business School researcher and professor, says that “when we do engage with people whose views clash with ours, we typically try to convince them to abandon their point of view in favor of ours. Assuming that we’re right and they’re wrong, we fight for our perspective and try to ‘win’ the argument.”* Usually, there is no “winning.”

Gino offers a better approach: “When we appear receptive to listening to and respecting others’ positions, they find our arguments more persuasive … receptive language is contagious.” Finding common ground doesn’t have to lead to compromising one’s values or principles. Engaging with those we disagree with can help clarify our own positions while leading to expanded empathy at the same time. Instead of leading with an effort to convince and “win,” let’s lead with the acknowledgement of the inherent dignity and value of our fellow human.

In their book “I Think You’re Wrong (but I’m Listening),” Sarah Holland and Beth Silvers say that this polarization has not been inflicted on us from above, but “we are choosing it. We are choosing division. We are choosing conflict. We are choosing to turn our civic sphere into a circus.” The good news, of course, is that we can choose another option. 

I see our nation and our democracy facing the greatest challenges in my 79 years. I fear for our future if we continue on the current divisive road. We must learn to talk and listen to each other again, as it has been in the past. We must respect the inherent dignity and value of each fellow human even if their views, choices and political opinions are different than ours. This is the only road that will secure our survival as a nation. Let’s talk; I am listening. 

*Francesca Gino, “Disagreement Doesn’t Have to Be Divisive,” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 16, 2020.

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Bruce McClay, M.A., M.L.S., Librarian Emeritus Walla Walla University, is a resident of Battle Ground.