Ben loved his Uncle Jim. He didn’t know of any other family as diverse as his when it came to religion and politics. Yet Uncle Jim had a way of calming the heated conversations that occurred in the family each year during holiday activities.
In discussions that would derail most family interactions, Ben marveled at how his uncle engaged in them with ease. He would listen to others’ opinions (even Aunt Lila’s), and even though those opinions were miles apart from his own, he would often say three words: “Tell me more.” Then he would continue to listen.
Uncle Jim was no pansy. Family members knew exactly where he stood. Yet he never made anyone else’s viewpoint wrong. Instead of trying to change Aunt Lila or Ben’s parents, Uncle Jim would approach them with curiosity about how they thought and felt. He never seemed threatened by the differences between them.
Aunt Lila, on the other hand, often pitted herself against family members whose opinions differed from hers. She would argue and try to make others look at things from her perspective. Aunt Lila knew she was right. She had a reputation in the family: here comes Lila with her dukes up!
In his martial arts class, Ben had just learned the principle of moving with your opponent. It created a surprise element that threw the opponent off balance. Ben noticed how Aunt Lila’s resistance to others created tension and a sense of “againstness,” while Uncle Jim’s tell-me-more approach reminded Ben of this martial arts principle.
Ben asked his uncle why he engaged with people this way. Jim told him how he had deliberately cultivated a sense of curiosity about how and why other people hold the beliefs they do. “My way is not the only right way,” Uncle Jim had told him. “Other people feel just as ‘right’ as I do, and I can respect that. I don’t need to make them wrong or convince them of anything.”
Uncle Jim had gone on to say, “If I set myself against them, they only feel me as a wall. And what do people do with walls? They want to bust through them, break them down. It only makes them more set in their opinions.”
“I’d rather be a bridge,” Uncle Jim told Ben. “If I ask questions and really listen, people are going to hear themselves instead of the opinions of an old man. If I’m open to them, who knows? They may go away from the conversation more open, too.”
“No wonder everyone loves Uncle Jim,” Ben thought. Secure in his own viewpoint, Uncle Jim didn’t feel threatened by other peoples’ attempts to change his mind. Out of genuine curiosity, he wanted to know why they felt the way they did. Hence his phrase, “Tell me more.”
Ben remembered something he had read about either-or thinking. He realized Uncle Jim stays out of either-or, and instead talks a both-and language. When people approach him with attitudes full of clenched fists, Uncle Jim’s both-and paradigm disarms them. When they take a swipe, they encounter nothing but a loving, open space.
Winning an argument isn’t the issue, thought Ben. What really counts, in the end, is love.
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