J.E. McNeil prides herself on her ability to bridge the regional, cultural, and political divides in the United States—the ability, as she puts it, to speak both NASCAR and NPR. So she created a program that teaches others how to communicate with people of different ideological persuasions. As she says, “You can’t start persuading people until you’re actually communicating.”
Her biggest piece of advice? “The most effective thing you can do in communication with others is to listen,” she explains.
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After the Trump election there was a training before the Women’s March for people to do bystander intervention training. So I took that training; I started doing bystander intervention trainings at the Meeting and other places, and as it increasingly became clear that the division in the country was becoming deeper and deeper and sharper and sharper, and that it was in part a regional difference and in part a cultural difference and finally a political difference, and that those things all overlay— But you know, I grew up in Texas. I’m 6th generation southerner. In many ways I can talk, as one of my friends put it, NPR versus Nascar. I definitely can talk Nascar but I can also— I’m educated, I hang out with liberals, I can also talk NPR. And so I felt like I had a gift there that I could share with people.
The Secret to True Communication
J.E. McNeil. Washington, D.C. I’m a member of Friends Meeting of Washington D.C.
So I wanted to take this gift that I have of my ability to talk to people who have different viewpoints than mine and try to find a way to help other people do that. So this program first talks about how perspectives– how we often think that what I see is the only answer. And I created one of those ubiquitous tubes where one side looks like this and another side looks like that and they all interconnect and you know, you go, “Oh, look at that! We’re looking at the same thing, but we see different things.” You know, it’s a starting point. It’s a starting point about just saying, you know, look, I disagree with my Trump supporter friends, I disagree with my anti-abortion birther friends, but we can talk about those topics, and so the whole program is about how do you do that? And it’s actually a lot harder than most people think.
Strategies for Actual Communication
The most effective thing you can do in communication with others is to listen; not to listen in order to format your argument, not to listen in order to come up with what I think is an incredibly passive aggressive system of nonviolent communication. It’s to actually just listen. And then the second most important thing you do, which I learned from a young woman who had been an Evangelical Christian who went online and started trying to post to convince people to believe that Jesus was their personal Lord and savior, and she ended up marrying a non-christian, you know, agnostic guy. And she said how she got there was he asked her questions and he asked her enough questions— really asking her questions about her faith, not attacks, but you know, not do you really believe Jesus? You know, not that kind of a question, but can you give me an example of how Jesus is your personal Lord and savior? So a real question, and then that made her free to ask her own questions.
So those are the two most valuable tools that I find almost never get used: actually really listening and actually being curious about what the other person has to say. I mean it does work to have a conversation and why is that enough? It’s enough, because it’s the only way that you will ever get anywhere else. You can’t start persuading people until you’re actually communicating, and if you’re going in with the idea of persuading you’re never going to communicate. So that’s the program, and I’ve done it multiple times. I even can manage to do it in a Zoom meeting format, which is not my favorite, but it’s possible, and I think it’s a valuable program and hopefully at some point I’ll be able to get back to traveling and/or by Zoom doing it again.
- What tools do you find useful when having a conversation with someone you don’t see eye to eye with?
- Do you believe there’s value in talking to people with different perspectives than your own? Why or why not?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.