How to Talk with Your Enemy

By Michael F. Mascolo

Political discussions usually take the form of a debate. We advance our position, the other person offers a counter-point. We attack. Our opponent defends. We continue by trying to show the other person that we are right and they are wrong. Or perhaps, we are trying to convince those who are watching us debate.

But the problem, of course, is that we rarely convince each other about sensitive topics through confrontation. Instead, we simply push away the very people we hope to influence.

We know this from our everyday life. Let's take a look at how this happens.

Political Talk Gone Wrong

Here is an example of how our contemporary approach to political discussions fails. In this exchange, Larry, Greg and Aron are discussing hate crimes in an online forum.

GREG: Don't be so sure that the FBI will continue to be as diligent [pursuing hate crimes] under the Jeff Sessions DOJ as they have been for the last 8 years. People should report to their local police, the FBI, and civil rights groups in hopes at least one of them will respond.

LARRY: Diligent? They don't go after left-wing radicals. Besides, many or most of the so-called hate crimes are being committed against Jews and people trying to stand up against the hatred coming from the left, BLM, Farrakhan devotees, and thugs rioting in the streets burning down their own neighborhoods.

Larry responds not by seeking to address the problems raised by Greg, but by attacking Greg’s position. Larry engages in three practices that cause the discussion to degenerate quickly. He invokes “us versus them” thinking; diminishes the importance of Greg’s concerns; and blames hateful violence on groups described using language that many would regard as racist. Taking offense, Aron attacks back:

ARON: Uhm, those hate crimes against Jews are coming from Trump supporters like yourself…You are ADORABLY ignorant.

And so, the discussion quickly degenerates into name calling. No one has changed their views. If anything, the parties are more entrenched than they were when they began.

Engaging the Humanity of the Other -- Even When the Other Isn’t Very Engaging

We cannot eliminate hate by force. If we want to oppose hate, we have to do it by tending to the internal and external conditions that foster hate. This can only be done by forging relationships with those with whom we disagree.

This isn’t easy. To do this, we must look beneath what a person says to uncover the fears, needs, and beliefs – however reasonable or unreasonable -- that motivate people to adopt their positions. We need to separate the other’s position from the person herself. When we engage the needs behind the position, we can begin to explore why the other thinks and feels as they do.

Something like this occurred in when Greg asked Larry an open-ended question about how to bridge the gap between them:

GREG: You and I look like a perfect example of Americans who seem to live in different universes, Larry. I wish has had some idea what to do about it. Do you? (Either one of just telling the other just to get out of their bubble is probably useless.)

Greg’s compassionate question opens up space for Larry to respond. If we seek to understand rather than simply condemn, we can learn much about Larry’s thinking and feeling.

LARRY: [If] you're speaking…about the world the left lives in, then I think there is nothing that can be done about it. Those under 50 have no idea what socialism or communism is so they will not change their beliefs until they live under the forms of government they champion. I, for one, fought against communism and socialism while serving in VN in the 60s and I assure you they are butchers, they are criminals, they are Godless, and they are cruel….Muslims as well suffer under the Islamist Nazis running rampant in the world today. My world is one of traditional values where good is good, evil is evil, we want the government to leave us the he!! alone and people fight for freedoms, not the right to force their beliefs onto others…

If we put aside our own biases long enough, we learn that Larry believes in freedom. As a product of his experiences in Viet Nam, he believes that socialism, communism and forms of totalitarianism breed cruelty. Larry embraces traditional values in which good and evil are not relative values. If we listen closely, we may find that we can appreciate some of what Larry has to say. But we need not agree with Larry’s views to understand them and appreciate how he could embrace them. He is not an alien.

We Must Talk -- Even Collaborate -- with Our Enemies

Once we begin to see our opponent as human being with human needs, real problem solving can begin. We can begin to look for ways to mitigate the fears and concerns that incite views we regard as hateful, racist, bigoted, and so forth. For example, Greg and Aron might be able to introduce Larry to minorities, leftists, and persons from diverse cultures and religions whose ways of being in the world disconfirm Larry’s expectations. Conversely, drawing upon his wartime experiences, Larry might be able to remind his interlocutors of the privileges they enjoy as citizens of a democratic nation.

We must always act forcefully to protect those who are harmed by bigotry and hate. However, we cannot eliminate hate through force or violence. We must talk to our enemies and seek to understand the pleas behind their positions. It does not diminish me to understand and even empathize with persons with whom I disagree – it actually increases the likelihood that we will be able to create some sort of common ground. I am diminished, however, when I reject the other without trying to make contact with their humanity– even when it appears that they are unable or unwilling to do the same.