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How not to have a conversation

Yelling between cars is just not the way to show you're willing to listen

This is a true story. Really, I could not have made this up.

Driving in city traffic to meet a friend, I sat in a left turn lane, minding my own business, waiting for a red light to turn. A car pulled up in the lane to my right, and the driver motioned to me to lower my window.

I opened my window, as he opened his, and he immediately said, “I’m a member of the tribe.” As if to say, “It’s reasonable for me to strike up a conversation with you, even under these odd circumstances.”

OK, I said, recognizing that he was clearly not stopping to ask for directions. I didn’t need to wait long before he launched in.

“I need to tell you: Obama was the very worst thing that ever happened to Israel. He did such terrible things. There was never a president who was ever so hostile to the needs of the Jewish people.”

The young man had clearly seen the fading Obama sticker (in Hebrew) on my back bumper.

Dear reader: if you agree with his view, please don’t stop reading. I am not here to critique his politics.

He went on like that for awhile and I listened as respectfully as I could, given the absurd circumstances. When he paused to take a breath, I said something like, “I respect that that is your point of view. I know that many people feel this way. I see the issues very differently than you do.”

He launched in again, with increased passion. “You must be misinformed. If you would only look into the facts, you would understand. If you knew as much as I do, you would know that the truth is that he was absolutely terrible . . .”

I resisted the slight temptation to tell him that I am at least as well-informed as he. Instead, I said, as gently as I could, “I’m not going to have this argument with you right here (pointing to the empty passenger seat and two car windows that separated us).”

“Argument?” he protested, seeming stung. “This isn’t an argument! It’s a conversation!”

I explained, pointing to the space between us, that this setting was, in my view, not a good context for a real conversation about such an important issue. It’s just not possible to talk seriously while sitting in our cars this way, waiting for the light to turn.

He protested again, emphatically. “That’s what’s so great about America! We can have conversations about any issue, no matter where we are!   Really,” he continued, “You need to know. I’m up till 3:00 in the morning reading stuff about this all the time. If you only became better informed you would know . . . “

I responded again, still trying to keep annoyance out of my tone, honoring the human being two windows across from me. “I respect your view. You have every right to see things that way. But I am quite well-informed, actually, and I understand the issues very differently than you do.”

Somehow I sensed that the light was about to turn. I looked up and saw that this conversation, mercifully, would soon be over. He put his hands to his chest, in the manner of a Buddhist saying, “Namaste. I see the light in you.” “Please,” he said urgently, “just look into the Iran deal . . . .  . . ” The light changed and I drove on.

How many things were wrong with this encounter? This “conversation,” if we can call it that, illustrates the inverse of all the rules of dialogue that I teach and try to practice.

1.Context. My young friend chose a time and setting in which no real conversation could possibly have happened. It was possible for him to blurt out his reaction to my bumper sticker. But he could not have heard a real response from me, even if he had been so inclined. Nor could I have learned much about his view, even had I had pushed past my annoyance into curiosity.

2.Mutual agreement. So, too, the other driver made no effort, except for the cryptic, “I’m a member of the tribe,” to determine whether I was interested in having a conversation with him under these circumstances. He presumed that I would be interested, or feel obligated, to listen to his mini-lecture, because it served his needs to deliver it. There was no mutuality here.

3.Intention. I suspect that he did not stop and check in with his heart or mind before opening his window to ask what his intention was in the conversation. Was it his intention to win a convert to his point of view? To insult me? Or to engage in conversation? (I am reminded of Martin Buber’s teaching about “false dialogue.” The fact that two people are sitting face to face does not make for real dialogue.)

4.Willingness to listen. If the traffic ahead had kept us locked in conversation for another few minutes, would he have had any willingness to listen to anything I had to say? For my part, I was also not dialogically inclined. I felt verbally assaulted, not moved to lean in and try to learn something about this stranger and his views.

5.Humility. Partners in real conversation must recognize, to some degree, that the other knows something that we don’t know – if not about the issue at hand, then about how one might come to believe in this position or that.  If I hold the complete and incontrovertible truth about this and all related issues, if every reasonably intelligent human being absolutely must think precisely as I do, then there is no conversation. Only speechifying.

Yes, I am critiquing the young man’s (non)-conversational technique. I did also wonder, as I drove away, whether I should have asked him a question of curiosity about his perspective (what I teach people in dialogue workshops to do), turning the encounter into a learning opportunity for me. I tried to imagine the kind of feelings that my bumper sticker had triggered in him, resulting in his offensive behavior. I challenged myself to conjure up a bumper sticker that would have enraged me as mine did to him. (Yet I am quite sure that I would not have verbally accosted the driver, even if the bumper sticker expressed a view I considered hateful or dangerous.)

Finally, I did try to wish him well, and to thank him for the opportunity to rethink my own commitment to dialogic communication. Wherever you are, my young friend, may you be well. May you be at peace. And may you have many opportunities in your life for real conversation.

About the Author
Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Rabbi Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, conflict consultant, and interfaith activist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She teaches on issues of peace and conflict and spiritual practice in venues throughout the U.S. Her book, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, was published by Orbis Books in April 2014.
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