Some people have no interest in living amongst other human beings with civility. There are theists and atheists alike who couldn’t care less about friendships or kindness. They believe they have a right to say what they want, how they want and consequences be damned. They use their words as a club and assume everyone who disagrees with them is “stupid” (I do not like this word). If you are one of those people, this blog post isn’t for you.
Most of Us Value Human Relationships
The rest of us care about human relationships and value them. We are regularly faced with the differences between ourselves and others and we choose to navigate those differences with as little conflict and drama as possible. We do not want to leave hurt feelings, broken friendships and childish behaviour in our wake as we travel through life. Many of us have children and those children attend school and have friends. Those friends have parents and we are forced to engage with them to varying degrees. We have jobs and at our jobs we must work together with co-workers, many of whom believe differently than we do. As we mature, we learn to handle these interactions more or less successfully and most of us desire to leave a positive mark on the world.
We learn quickly that human interaction is quite messy and often complicated. Misunderstandings often seem to take center stage, quickly degenerating even the simplest of conversations. When we feel misunderstood or unable to clearly articulate a position, we get defensive and frustrated, making things even worse. Is the choice of the person I mentioned above sounding increasingly appealing? I know I sometimes would rather take the low road. But I don’t, because I want people in my life who I love and who love me – not just in spite of our differences, but because of them.
Many (most?) of us find incivility exhausting. I know I do. It makes me feel icky. When I see it in myself, it’s an ugliness I cannot tolerate. When I see it in my children, it breaks my heart as a mother and as one of their primary teachers. So when I saw this blog post, I was encouraged that I am not the only one who is occasionally disheartened by a lack of human decency on both sides of the deity position both on and offline.
When I am at my most uncivil, I have noticed that I manifest three key things: I do not ask sincere questions, I do not engage in active listening and I assume negative intent.
Assume Positive Intent
One of the best pieces of advice I got when my firstborn became a toddler was to assume positive intent. In other words, when she unrolls an entire roll of toilet tissue INTO the toilet, don’t assume her intention was to plug the toilet causing me inconvenience and irritation.
It occurred to me that this is good advice for all human interactions and I always have greater success in my relationships when I follow it. Perhaps that Muslim you’re talking to isn’t intending to insult your intelligence, convert your and/or be a general pain in the ass. Assuming positive intent at least gets you started on the right foot – even IF it turns out the person doesn’t have good intentions.
Ask Good Questions and Listen Well
There is something powerful about asking questions. I have noticed that often, especially in mixed company, atheists tend to make many statements and ask few questions. And when they do ask questions, they’re often leading and/or rhetorical and are frequently sarcastic, mocking or belittling.
This is a bad habit – personally and collectively. Not only because it’s obnoxious socially, but because it shuts down our own ability to hear and to learn. Someone might be saying something that is not factual or communicating an opinion we don’t share, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned.
As Dr. Misha Galperin said in an article I read recently, “Asking questions is a form of engagement. It shows that we care.” When we don’t ask good, meaningful questions, it shows we are disengaged. And when we are disengaged, we become obsolete. This one hit me hard. When, through my behaviour, I become disengaged, I lose all power to influence others or generate change. I become obsolete.
When I’ve asked questions, I then need to listen, genuinely listen with the goal of understanding, not just gathering the next bullet to load into my rhetorical gun.
If I want my voice to matter and maintain positive relationships, I must first enter into an engagement with the intent of genuine understanding, not just persuasion. I must limit my assumptions as much as possible and not assign guilt by association. If something someone says seems insulting or absurd, I can apply positive intent, ask questions and actively listen and very often, I gain better understanding and walk away feeling at least a little less icky.