- Meaningful personal growth can come from interactions with those with whom we disagree.
- Conversations with people with different beliefs allow us to connect with others’ humanity.
- Honest listening lays the groundwork for true empathy.
By Courtney Forbes, M.A., M.Ed., and Anthony Chatham, M.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates
The temperatures are falling, the leaves are changing, and it won’t be long before many families and friends gather for the holidays. If you are starting to worry about conversations that might come up around the dinner table, things that may have felt simpler before the pandemic and social isolation, you’re not alone. It’s so common that it’s become a cliché. While there are many things we love about holiday gatherings, conversations on topics such as politics, religion, and current events can be stressful for everyone involved.
We’re writing as two white, cisgender healthcare professionals who share the experience of living “between two worlds,” in both of our cases, the relatively conservative communities (Appalachia and the deep South) where we grew up and the progressive cities where we have lived and worked as adults. We want to share a little about what our experiences navigating between those cultural spaces has taught us about maintaining relationships with people whose beliefs are different from our own.
When I was 17, I moved from my hometown in West Virginia to Washington, D.C. for college. A few weeks later, I saw an advertisement on the Metro that stated, "There is no such thing as clean coal." It was jarring. In my hometown, the billboards said "Coal keeps the lights on” and that was all I had ever known. This was my first glimpse into understanding how my opinions had been shaped by my social and cultural environment, and that others might see things quite differently.
The culture shock wore off over time. When I went home for the holidays, though, things felt more complicated. I noticed that some of the things I heard on the news, at church, and even around the dinner table implicitly or explicitly reflected negative assumptions about individuals from certain groups, such as people from different faiths, different racial/ethnic backgrounds, or who supported ‘liberal’ causes like antiracist education and women’s rights. I had to wonder if any of the people making these ‘othering’ statements had ever talked with, lived with, or taken the time to really listen to anyone who looked different, practiced a different religion, or held opposing sociopolitical views.
Years later, I watched the 2016 election from Philadelphia with a group of friends from the East and West Coasts. The conversation inevitably drifted to factors that had influenced its outcome. I became frustrated as the conversation progressed, especially when I heard sentences beginning with the words ‘those people,’ such as, "Those conservative voters." "Those rural White voting blocks." Reflecting on the conversation later, I realized my reaction was in response to the same type of ‘othering’ that I had noticed on my trips home from college, the same type of language that fostered division without considering that individuals from another group might have legitimate reasons for their points of view.
What I’ve taken from all of this is an understanding of how lived experience irrevocably shapes our beliefs about the world. If we do not make an active effort to seek out others’ perspectives and learn about their experiences, we may miss out on important nuances, as well as opportunities for authentic human connection.
My culture shock and experience of being the ‘other’ came when I moved to rural South Carolina. I did not share many common religious or political beliefs with most of those around me, which was a stark difference from my previous community in New York. This initially led to difficulty engaging in anything that felt like deep meaningful conversations with new friends. However, as I grew and started to consider many people from my adopted hometown to be family, I began to engage in those difficult conversations because of the love and care that developed. Often, the difficult conversations that I was having with those close to me led to more personal growth than if I had skirted those conversations, as I did when I was younger. Those conversations and relationships that were built also allowed me to see people who thought differently than I did as three-dimensional human beings, with just as much depth and worth as those who believed the same things that I did. Knowing other people intimately and deeply helps me see their humanity more clearly.
Events over the past decade seem to have pushed many people that I care about to see each other as ‘others’ and antagonists. This ‘othering’ often takes away the depth and humanity of those on the other side and leads us to see them as nothing more than obstacles to progress or threats to our desired way of life, and not as people who are more like us than not.
This year, when you’re gathered around the table and someone starts to share an opinion that you might otherwise dismiss, we encourage you to lean into the conversation. Get curious. Ask questions. Ask yourself, “Can I tolerate the discomfort this brings up for me in service of listening to understand?” You don’t have to agree, and the existence of others’ beliefs does not have to threaten yours, yet you can always listen with respect. We do have to acknowledge that there are instances where conversations can lead to others expressing beliefs that are prejudiced, oppressive, hostile, and certainly, in those instances, it is not possible to consider all peoples’ beliefs equally. We also want to be clear that we are hoping these conversations happen in safe environments that are conducive to having meaningful conversations.
That’s not to say that being open and curious will come easily. In our divisive world, we have come to associate disagreement with antagonism. It’s often easier to stay silent than to engage in a conversation that could give rise to conflict. You might ask, "What do I have to gain from a conversation?" We would also encourage you to consider whether you have anything to lose from it. At the end of the discussion, it’s possible that you will hold fast to your beliefs and the other person will hold just as strongly to theirs. However, both of you may have gained insight into what it’s like to see the world through another’s eyes, and perhaps begun to lay the foundation of empathy.