Last week I was on a crowded plane flying back from a meeting in Washington DC. I’d packed in my apple, my bottle of water and a People magazine – healthy food, junk food reading – and settled into my tiny seat to unwind after a full day.
I happily breezed through People and moved onto my novel. The woman sitting next to me, having finished her newspaper, asked if she could borrow my magazine. Sure, happy to share the wealth. She commented out loud on a few items in the magazine, seemingly wanting to engage in conversation with me. Curious, I jumped in.
She dove in too, asking my thoughts on an issue of the day, saying
she was asking a number of people the same question as a type of
personal opinion poll. "But I’m not sure where you are, politically,"
she warned, as a preface, but not revealing her own persuasion.
Equally cautiously, wanting to express myself but not offend a stranger
less than a few inches away, I told her my thoughts. As we exchanged
our ideas, it became clear that her opinion on the topic was
considerably different than mine.
In fact, I’d guess that if we’d had name tags on visually
pronouncing our opinions on the topic ("Hello, I’m a….), we wouldn’t
have even spent another minute talking to the other person. Not worth
the time. Dismissed before we either one of us opened our mouths.
The topic we discussed – not quite debated – is a hot one. It
divides communities and families. People choose political candidates
over this issue. It really doesn’t matter which topic we discussed,
because there are many like this out there. You can choose your
favorite and fill in the blanks.
What I valued was the opportunity that I had to talk with someone
who I might have at other times of my life seen as "wrong". I didn’t
have any illusions of trying persuade or convert her to my "side"
(particularly on a long cramped flight); instead I focused on listening
and trying understanding her perspectives. Trying to look for points
of commonality – in our own personal lives, our underlying values, and
in our ultimate goals for society.
Too often in life we surround ourselves with like-minded folks:
‘yes’ men and women. It’s understandable and comfortable, but perhaps
too comfortable at times. To step out and really try to engage with
someone who comes from another world, a completely different
perspective: that’s a challenge.
This, actually, was the point I tried to make to my neighbor: having
civil respectful discussions with people who hold opposing positions,
and looking for common ground, seems missing in the policy arena, or
often even in our own lives. Our society is mostly missing out on
critical dialog that might actually spawn new solutions to substantive
While she didn’t change my position on the topic, and I doubt I
changed hers (nor did we solve the issue), I’m richer for the
experience, and I hope she is as well.