When Talking Becomes a Full Contact Sport

I would rather scream at you than listen to what you have to say.

Turn on the TV. Read the paper. Check your favorite news sites. Scroll through social media. Talk to your friends and family. The signs of conversational breakdown are everywhere. The mere idea of “civil debate” has packed up its suitcase and hopped on a plane to Antarctica. Our cultural discourse has devolved from shades of gray to a binary choice… you are either completely, 100%, no questions asked right… or you’re completely, 100%, no questions asked wrong.

Talking to anyone who isn’t in your camp or “on your team” about any topic can quickly and assuredly devolve into red faces, hoarse voices, and hurt feelings. I’m right. I know I’m right. And you, my good friend, are so unbelievably wrong on so many levels it will take me the next hour of screaming at you to MAKE you see the error of your ways. And this isn’t to say that there are topics where someone can’t be wrong, like being sympathetic to white nationalists or rapists or people who want to hurt other people for no good reason. I’m talking about all the other topics that make up the hours and days of our average lives. Healthcare. Education. Civil rights. Equal pay. Religion. The environment. Neighbors. Topics that are ripe for a spirited debate and civil discourse. But at this moment in time that seems to be a dream that’s just this much out of reach.

And I believe the way we couch our discussions has a lot to do with it.

I’m currently reading the book I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) by Sarah Stewart Holland & Beth Silvers. It’s main focus is on how to have more civil political conversations, but there is a passage that I believe can be applied to conversations in general. And it has to do with our love affair with sports. In chapter two, the authors write “…We take our sports too seriously because someone has to win and someone has to lose. That’s why there’s a big problem with behaving as though politics is a sport when we are focused on winning as a political imperative.” They go on to say “When our jerseys inform everything, it stifles our creativity.” I love that last line because it points right to the heart of the issues we’re having talking to each other. We are all sorted onto teams and given our jerseys to wear, then we are sent out into the world to evangelize for our team. And whenever possible, we find someone wearing a different jersey and immediately switch into sports mode. We square up, stiffen our spines, ball up our fists, and start reciting our beliefs in bullet point fashion, scoffing at the other person’s list as often as we can. And all the while, in the back of our minds, the scoreboard in our mental stadium is keeping track of points scored, fouls committed, time outs called, and we may throw in a halftime show during a bathroom break.

And no room is made for real thought or genuine curiosity. Because our jersey won’t allow it. Wavering from our stance or entertaining a different point of view is seen as weak. Who’s side are you on, anyway? Why would you even begin to think about what it’s like for the “other side”? Empathy is for suckers. Empathy is not going to win us this game. Empathy is something losers do. And our team isn’t a loser. It’s a winner. But why isn’t their room for empathy and curiosity in our current societal environment? Because sports isn’t an empathetic place, and has no need for curiosity. What’s there to be curious about? We’re not here to have tea. We’re here to trounce the other team and win the game.

Now let’s play “what if”… What if instead of wearing jerseys, we wore our own clothes? What if instead of being on “teams” we tended to agree with certain ways of thinking over others? What if we threw out our bullet points and asked the other person “what do you think about this?” What if there were no sports references in our conversations? What if it wasn’t a zero-sum game? What if we enjoyed the civility of debate? What if we could empathize with someone who’s thinking wasn’t as aligned with ours?

My challenge to you is this: if you’re not currently playing on a field in an actual sporting event, stop thinking in sports terms. Instead of winning or losing, what about learning one new thing a day and connecting with one new person?