Love One Another
So We Can Talk To Each Other

by Karen Tibbals
Rahway Plainfield Meeting


Our country is divided. Even Quakers are divided. We have a hard time agreeing on anything. I am reminded of an FGC plenary speech on that theme years ago by then Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. In the question and answer period afterwards, people kept describing examples that were more and more difficult. His answer was the same, love them anyway. The fact that he kept getting the same question, over and over again, illustrates how difficult it is.


Is there a way to love people who are difficult?


I think there is. For me, the key is a deep understanding of people’s values and how it informs their stance on issues. That helps me to separate the people from their values and from the things they say. Then, I can love the person.


But more than that, it helps me learn how to talk to people I disagree with in a way they can hear. When we talk from our own beliefs, then we often express ourselves in a way that is perceived by others as aggressive or condescending. I call that preaching.


I like to use an Aesop fable to describe what happens when we preach.


One day the sun and the wind got into an argument about which was more powerful. They agreed to settle the argument by recognizing that the more powerful would be the one who made the traveler take off his cloak. The wind went first, sending a strong gust. That make the traveler hold onto his cloak tighter, wrapping it around himself and holding close. Then it was the sun’s turn. The sun shone brightly, warming up the traveler, until the traveler lay down to bask in the sun, taking off his cloak.


Preaching is like what happens when the wind blows strongly. The listener holds onto their beliefs even more tightly.


Academic research shows that the effect of extreme actions by demonstrators on people who disagree is exactly the opposite of what the demonstrators want. The watchers tend to strengthen their own belief system. As Abigail Van Buren has said: “People who fight with fire, usually end up with ashes.”


Let me emphasize this point: The very action that the demonstrators thought was so powerful has exactly the opposite effect than they want. The activists may be proud of themselves for being so formidable and forceful, and believe what they are doing is working, but they don’t realize that what they are doing is actually counterproductive. Plus, the other side already knows basically what you think.


On the other hand, persuasion is what happens when the sun comes out. When we listen to someone who “gets us,” who seems to come from our perspective, we relax. We listen differently. That person becomes part of our tribe. And if that person makes a surprising comment that fits with our belief system, we agree. That’s what happens when the sun comes out.


That’s what I think will help us love one another and talk to one another productively. Learning how to take into account the other’s perspective so you can love one another. Learning how to take into account their values so you can talk to them in a respectful, productive, persuasive way. It isn’t easy to do, but the attempt is worth it.


Karen Tibbals is co-clerk of Rahway Plainfield Monthly Meeting in NJ. This article was adapted from her forthcoming book, Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility across the Political Divide (available when the pandemic allows).