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#tolerancemeans the work of empathetic listening

Updated: Apr 8

Madison Szell, Undergraduate, Saint Louis University

 I hear it before every major holiday: “Don’t bring that up;” “Don’t say anything about it;” “Don’t ask about that-- you’ll start a huge fight at the dinner table!” 

Madison Szell, Undergraduate, Saint Louis University

In this time of unprecedented division and animosity between opposing views, certain topics in family conversation (or perhaps in any conversation) are more taboo than ever. We fear disagreeing with those we love. We fear disagreeing with those we do not want to alienate. Simply, we fear disagreeing, because what do we see when disagreements happen in the world? Catastrophe. Pundits yelling at each other. Angry and hurtful words written on social media. The only argumentative discourse we see is inflammatory, from zero to one hundred in the blink of an eye, and with no room for any semblance of understanding or compassion.  

Obviously, this is not what we are meant for. We are meant for connection and empathy. But our culture’s ruthless pitting of one belief against another makes us afraid to even attempt this kind of understanding. And in this fear and its silencing of conversations, we forget that our “opponents” believe just as firmly and deeply in their beliefs as we do our own. We forget that just as our life experiences have informed our rigid beliefs, those on the other side of the issue are just as informed by their experiences. We forget that we all come from different backgrounds-- different places, different people, and different circumstances. Clearly, we are bound to come to different conclusions! 

This is not to say that there are no wrongs. Some people have certainly come to harmful conclusions-- of course there are wrongs. But the way in which those wrongs are righted is the key. Changing someone’s belief is a matter of gentle non-judgment rather than harsh shame. No one wants to be yelled at. No one is going to be embarrassed into a different way of thinking. No, the only way to successfully express and convince someone of a new paradigm is by understanding the place and paradigm from which they come. In other words: listen first, talk later. If we truly, actively listen to a person’s story and understand how and why they reach their personal conclusions, we are far better equipped to change minds and hearts. Essentially, it comes down to this: in trying to achieve tolerance, do we go to war with the weapons of shame, anger, and judgment? Or rather, do we go to work with the tools of understanding, non-judgment, and empathetic listening? I propose this: at the next family gathering, when everyone sits down for dinner, lay down your weapons. Pick up your tools. Get to the work of listening. This work may seem fruitless; it may only be the planting of seeds. But I believe only one thing can grow from the seeds planted by the tool of empathetic listening: tolerance.


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