Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. – James 1:19-20

“Everyone feels unheard,” H said to me yesterday as we returned from the drugstore for our hair dye run. We were talking about how uncivil, angry, and downright ugly some folks can be on social media. “People don’t feel like anyone is listening.” I nodded, agreed, and then switched to thinking about the scrumptiousness of spicy cole slaw as we pulled up the restaurant.

But on the way home, I pondered her comment. There’s so much truth there that I’m not sure I can unpack it all the way. I certainly know that when I feel unheard I typically have one of two reactions: stop talking at all or get louder. I see both of those reactions around the web these days, and while I would never presume to make anyone else’s choices about how to respond to these very intense, powerful, painful, and often personal subjects, I’m not sure that either options – silence or shouting is the best if we want to understand one another. I think we need to listen to each other, share our thoughts, and then learn how to walk away to think about what we’ve discussed. I certainly need to do better at that rather than letting my emotions wrap around my lungs like vises.

When I teach argument in my composition classes, I point out two things to my students. First, to write a solid argument, they must understand why they believe what they believe. They need evidence and support that incorporates reason and facts but doesn’t necessarily preclude emotion. They need to honestly examine why they hold a position on a topic and learn to articulate that why calmly and clearly so that other people can understand it.

If they do not understand why they believe what they believe and if they do not have solid evidence for why, their argument can be broken apart like so many pig castles hit by flying birds.

Secondly, to write a solid argument, they must understand what the “opposition” believes and why they believe that. To make a clear case for their own position, writers must truly know why a person who disagrees might hold their own position. Without this knowledge, an argument isn’t sound because a writer might have missed a key point that someone could use to deflate the premise. But more importantly, this failure to recognize that the opposition has a solid perspective, even if the writer disagrees, sets their paper up to insensitive in tone and perhaps content.

Without these two elements of understand – knowing why we believe what we do and knowing why other people believe what they do – we can’t really get anywhere. We end up saying things like, “Gay people don’t deserve the same rights we do.” or “Christians aren’t very smart people.” (Two comments, incidentally, I heard just yesterday). If we pursued these lines of thoughts a little more deeply, we might find that what we mean is something more like “I don’t think the Bible supports same sex marriage, but I think God still loves gay people. I don’t know how to reconcile those things.” or “I’ve met a lot of Christians who take the Bible as true, and I don’t necessarily. So that’s hard for me to understand.” Or maybe we would find – as I did once – that we hold deep prejudices that have gone unspoken and unexamined our whole lives.

I hope we learn to listen, first, to ourselves and then to other people. I think we’ll find – as my students sometimes do – that listening helps us not only understand each other, but also helps us grow as people and make better, wise, more compassionate decisions about the things we believe and the choices we make.

Lead with our ears. I may need to tape my mouth shut to do that, but I’m really going to try.

What is your first reaction when you find yourself in a conversation about a heated topic? How do you engage the other person?

Several amazing folks I know are also posting about this topic today. If you would please check our their posts as well: Jennifer Luitweiler, Caris Adel, Kristin Tennant, and Kirsten LaBlanc. We are also discussing civil discourse over on Twitter using the hashtag #quickto listen. If you’d like to join in the conversation, feel free to tweet us or share a link to your post on this topic in the comments below. I’ll do my best (unless you ask that I not) to tweet out your posts as well throughout the day. Thanks for listening and for sharing.