How to Talk With the Other Side

5 min read

Social media is filled with simplistic slogans. Will you stand with this side? Injustice, intolerance, and inhumanity splash on the news and spill out on the streets. Protests abound. As hate crimes rise, thoughtful conversation is bleeding out, with no tourniquet or psychological medic in sight.

What can we do to stop the hate and stop the hurt? How can we speak with the other side? Former president Barack Obama offers an answer. Speaking of the war in Gaza, he says:

“If there’s any chance of us being able to act constructively to do something, it will require an admission of complexity.”

Notice the word admit. To be open to another’s side, we must acknowledge the limitations of our perspective. But that isn’t easy. Like a staring contest, who wants to blink first? That feels like defeat. It’s also nearly impossible to admit the complexity of loaded topics.

Taking the admission of complexity as an endpoint, where shall we begin?

Step 1: Start with Common Ground

I heard a poignant story of an Israeli and Palestinian walking into a New York City elevator shortly after October 7th. Instead of righteous indignation, retaliatory digs, or endless litigation, each began with common ground:

“Oh my goodness, my friend, how are you doing and how is your lovely family? Is everybody safe?”

There was no talk about anything other than their shared humanity and deep affection. This common ground carried them through later more challenging moments.

Contrast this conversation to another. Two Jewish Americans with Israeli relatives console each other about fears and concerns for their family and the rise in antisemitism here and abroad. An African-American college student overhears them and counters:

“What do you think the Palestinians have been dealing with for years during the occupation? Where is your concern for them in the apartheid state of Israel?”

The student has legitimate grievances and feelings. However, he isn’t yet entertaining common ground to frame a discussion that admits complexities. His stance has its own significant merits and blind spots. While he forwards a view that rightfully calls out injustice, he presumes that a complex history and political narrative is an exact copy of his own.

Obama notes above that it’s possible for contradictory truths to operate simultaneously. The Palestinians and Israelis both suffer just as South Africans suffered under Apartheid and African Americans suffered (and still suffer) due to racial discrimination.

Holding on to emotional and intellectual complexity is hard work. It’s like remembering more than the magic number of seven (plus or minus two) in short-term memory. It’s taxing and challenging; keep it simple by first getting to that common ground.

Now, you are ready to add on some more to test the limits of deeper engagement.

Step 2: Challenge Thoughtfully After Giving Points to the Other Side

A cousin posts pictures of a Palestinian rally and proclaims: “From the river to the sea, free Palestine!” As a Jew, I couldn’t read the phrase without wincing; historically, it’s signified wiping Israel off the map (though others say it only represents freedom from oppression—again, it’s complex).

How could I begin to talk to the other side? I started with common ground, noting the compassion my cousin had for the plight of ordinary and decent people. I then gave my seeming opponent points, highlighting what I admired in her stance: her dedication to fighting for equal rights.

It was only then that I challenged, but I did so surgically. I asked simply, almost naively, if she knew what the phrase signaled in the past and how it might be misunderstood.

I was happily surprised. Because I had asked without accusation or insult, she opened up a fuller story. For her, the phrase was intended in the context of fighting colonialism and oppression alone. Until I had questioned it, she had no awareness of any other meaning and was quite apologetic for the painful echoes I heard in her phrasing.

Whenever we challenge another on a controversial issue, we must lean into the hurt, rather than leading with hate to win the day. The individual or collective trauma is at the core of the controversy and finding a way to the hurt protects us all from radioactive fallout.

Can we hold curiosity and empathy for each other’s positions and feelings, and find a way to the fuller human story beyond the headline? I wasn’t telling my cousin her position was utterly foolish or wrong, I was sharing a hurt while imagining a hurt for her as well.

Witnessed hurts triumphs over hate. As in couples therapy, the point isn’t over who is right, it’s about cultivating an open, equal, and deepening process.

Step 3: Actively Seek to Complicate Your Picture

My seeming enemy became my new teacher. She not only reminded me that she loved me, she asked if I could share readings with her from my side and offered readings of her own to mutually enlarge the picture together.

Neither of us had to pretend or defend that we knew it all. Instead of a tug of war for whose truth was stronger, we tenderly held up the torn pieces we each held of a treasure map. There was no way for us to find the gold unless we taped the fragments together to form a complete picture.

Admitting complexity doesn’t have to minimize or deny your perspective. Nor must it be painful and humbling. Instead, it reclaims your own humanity and that of your potential adversary.

Having conversations like these just might save our world. As filmmaker Jean Renoir showed in his 1937 film La Grande Illusion, maybe the borders we place on our countries and our ideologies are the grandest illusion, keeping us from admitting our shared complexity and beautiful humanity. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world to live in together again?

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