Respecting Others’ Beliefs

I am as biased as the next person, but I’m trying to learn how to respect someone’s belief without getting drawn into an angry debate or staying silent so no feelings are hurt. I tend not to listen to the rants of fanatic liberals or fanatic conservatives, but how can I learn from others if I don’t listen in an open fashion?

Years ago when I worked at Loretta Heights College in Denver, the entire campus came to a stop for a week experiment so we could all focus on meetings that would lead us to a ‘consensus’ on the mission of the school. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate the way the meetings taught us we should listen for what we have in common on ideas and build on that instead of focusing on how we differ.

Our belief systems, whether religious or political or otherwise, are based on our personal experiences and what we heard and whom we listened to and believed as we grew up. When we reached adulthood, we sort of got stuck. We all believe our own opinions or we wouldn’t have them. If we question our beliefs or listen to other beliefs, does that mean we must rethink everything we have believed for so long? Is fear of change, fear of the unknown, behind the unwillingness to listen to someone who thinks differently or looks different or has different customs?

Respecting others’ beliefs doesn’t mean I have to be convinced to their way of thinking, but I should understand a bit of why they came to their conclusions. Every single one of us has a different perspective. If we are always closed-minded, how can we ever grow in our own worldview?

Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” What a wise man. We can listen, weigh what we hear, and then decide whether it is something we can agree with or not.

But we must listen.

A few years ago I sat in the balcony of the United States Senate and listened to several speeches. The chamber was nearly empty. Down below stood Senator John McCain speaking to…about four other senators, and they had only come to the floor to speak and then leave. I heard Senator Daniel Inouye speak and Senator Tom Coburn and Senator Harry Reid. They did not speak to each other. There was no back and forth discussion, only prepared speeches, mostly read to a camera.

I think I’m guilty of that type of discussion, too. Most of my conversation is waiting for my turn to speak, not really listening to the other person.

Here’s my new resolution: I should analyze my own beliefs so I can give a clear explanation of them. Then I will listen to the other person in the discussion and listen hard until I can restate his belief and ask if I understood it correctly. That will cement it in my mind, I hope, and it will let me see the connections. After all, I want the other person to give me a fair listen, so he deserves that opportunity, too.

Years ago, the fundamental part of that consensus experiment in Denver was listening–not thinking of the clever zinger I could throw into the conversation, not encouraging sharp exchanges, but listening and giving a thoughtful comment.

So now I finally get it: respecting others’ beliefs begins with listening.




My goal is to reflect on life around me and write a thoughtful essay each month.

Next month’s topic is the difference between information and knowledge.