There are several things, universally known, which one is never supposed to discuss over dinner: religion, politics, and money. I violate this generally well regarded rule on a regular basis while never impeding my digestion. My secret? I try, in the words of the prayer of St. Francis, not to seek so much to be understood as to understand.
During the course of the discussion there inevitably comes a time when my interest and inquiry is reciprocated. I try and focus on the interests, concerns, and struggles of my dining companion offering my perspective in a way that seems like it would be most helpful to expand their knowledge, ease their conscience, and support them in their difficulties.
Jack Powelson, devote Quaker and Professor of Economics, developed a similar approach after a contentious meeting as related in his book Seeking Truth Together:
My “road to Damascus” occurred at Friends General Conference in 1999, where I conducted a workshop of twenty participants, which was intended to last five of six sessions. I started out on Monday by explaining the thesis of my most recent book, The Moral Economy. Immediately, objections arose, and the objectors spoke loud and long, so much so that I could not express my views adequately. By the end of the third session, ten participants had walked out and formed their own workshop. For one who has always been rated highly as a teacher, and whose books have always had positive reviews, I was stunned. Never had anything like that happened to me, nor would I have expected it among Friends [Fellow Quakers]. My eyes brimmed with tears, and I had to get a grip on myself to continue the workshop with the remaining ten.
This is a moving example of why topics like religion, politics, and economics are so often avoided. We seek to avoid the discord and hurt feelings these discussions can often lead to. Jack reported this disaster to his friend and clerk of the workshop committee Jane Kashnig who helped him put the painful meeting in perspective:
“Those Friends could have left your workshop on Monday,” she said, “but even though they were uncomfortable, they stayed because they were willing to consider difficult, real world issues. Your ideas are sound and deserve serious consideration by Friends.”
“But I am about to present my topic at workshops in four Yearly Meetings. How can I prevent the same thing from happening?”
Jane thought for a moment. Then she said, “Did you tell the workshop your truth, or did you seek the truth with them?”
Jack learned that day to communicate differently. He led workshops on often contentious issues inviting others to a shared inquiry rather than seeking merely to persuade. Seeking not simply momentary assent to his positions through sheer force of argument, his new approach was constructive. Thinking through issues of mutual concern with his audience he not only provided them with new ways of thinking but also helped to make connections to their own experience.
No topics are too contentious when discussed in a generous and patient spirit. We are better able to share our own knowledge and wisdom when we respect our interlocutors and listen to their perspective. Our arguments are more persuasive when they address our friends concerns; they will only lead to lasting change when they offer wisdom to address their own struggles.