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Column: Understanding conflict helps conquer divide

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The recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on the national mood was sobering. The word respondents most frequently used to characterize the current state of American society was “divided,” coming in at 37 percent.

We are, then — unless pursuing a hermit’s lifestyle — inevitably put in frequent, if not constant contact, with those with whom we sharply disagree on fairly large matters. I certainly am. The daily parade of interactions in my life is with many a professional associate and even friend or kin with whom I am not at all on the same page.

In some cases the chasm between us is coincident with a personality whose scant appeal for me keeps contact to the level of what’s necessary. For that matter, there is a fairly sizable group of people with whom I am in near-total ideological sync but whose company I’m not inclined to seek out.

But what of those whom I have come to find charming companions, and even friends, to the extent of trusting them with knowledge of my personal life? There are many such people in my life, and I’m increasingly curious as to what makes comity and even deep regard between us possible.

I think respect for their intellect is a must. Even if a person comes to a conclusion I’m convinced is utterly wrong, if real rigor was applied to arriving at it, I’m impressed enough to keep engaging in conversations with them.

A related trait is a willingness to really listen. People who value clarity are careful not to misunderstand any aspect of an argument. When an exchange gets heated, this is often the trait that can ratchet the intensity back down.

Part of my admiration for this willingness is that it demonstrates how important it is to the other person to go on the record as having been unfailingly civil. It’s an insistence on being credible. It’s of great importance to me, and I’m naturally inclined to like someone to whom it’s likewise a priority.

Seeing that a person has chops in his or her chosen field goes a long way toward making friendship possible in such cases. Knowing that someone has invested the time and effort to amass a particular skill set or body of knowledge just compels me to accord him respect.

I’ve even experienced situations in which the mutually acknowledged divide between our world views deepened friendships. A while back, I was contacted by someone who wanted to get together for a Saturday breakfast because, as he said, “I can’t think of anyone else I regard as a friend with whom I disagree so completely on pretty much everything.”

We had a wide-ranging exchange over hash browns and bacon and even discovered some surprising points of concurrence. We gave some thought to making it a regular event but life, as it is wont to do, made for scheduling complications we have yet to surmount.

Another such friend requested a lunch appointment on the basis of a facial expression with which I’d responded to a remark she’d made. Again, it was a fruitful encounter and, again, there would probably be merit in another such bread-breaking session.

Getting a grasp on the art of incorporating divergent outlooks into friendships is especially important in a community such as ours. The nature of civic life here necessitates that you actually get to know people.

It’s not impersonal here; quite the contrary. We can’t walk around a gasoline can holding lit matches.

It starts with a basic agreement to stay away from ad hominem attacks. It requires an openness to possibility.

Barney Quick is one of The Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at

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