Reaching Across the Divide

Terry Lieb Healing Relationships, Judging Others, Living out your Faith 14 Comments

I admit it. I was eavesdropping. I didn’t mean to be, but in light of what I heard, I can’t say I’m sorry.

It happened in line at Publix. The two gentlemen directly in front of me, who apparently were friends or at least acquaintances, were talking loudly enough that I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. The older gentleman with a full beard pointed out the re-usable bags that were for sale and commented that they were just another way for the store to make extra money by charging for something you used to get for free.

The conversation quickly went from plastic bags to climate change. The bearded gentleman described this “global warming stuff” as “a pile of bullpoop.” (I’ve slightly amended his exact expression to keep things family-friendly!) He went on to say that he remembered a very similar concern about weather changes when he was a teenager and that eventually it all returned to normal.

The younger gentleman listened attentively and asked for more details about his recollections. Without any hint of sarcasm he said, “You have an amazing memory. I can’t remember what the weather was last month let alone 50 years ago!” It was obvious he had a genuine appreciation of his companion’s experience as (from what I could deduce) a lifelong farmer.

“It’s certainly true that the weather has gone through changes in the past,” the younger man admitted, “but I’m not sure that’s quite the same as climate change. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on it. Since global warming is such a hugely important issue if it’s true, I decided to take the same approach to it as I do my car.”

“Your car?” the other man asked, intrigued.

“Yeah, I know a little about cars. I can drive them, change the oil and the tires, jump start the engine. But beyond that, though, if I have a problem, I’m out of my depth so I go to a mechanic who knows what he or she is talking about. Just like I go to a doctor when I’m sick or a plumber when I’ve got a leak.”

The bearded man nodded in agreement.

“Since I’m no expert on the climate,” the younger man continued, “I wanted to know what conclusions the people who study it for a living were coming to. I’ve read quite a few articles on the subject and I learned that over 90% of PhD-level environmental scientists have concluded that global warming is real and a serious threat. It’s pretty rare to find that level of agreement on anything, so I think it’s something we need to give some serious attention to.”

The bearded gentleman, who by this time had begun putting his groceries on the moving belt, said, “Huh, you’ve thought a lot about this issue.”

“Here, let me write down a website that has a lot of the research I was talking about and you can check it out yourself,” the younger gentleman said, taking out a pen. Neither had a piece of paper, so the farmer offered his receipt and his friend scribbled on the back. The farmer stuffed it in the top pocket of his Carhart jacket and went on his way, saying he hoped they’d bump into each other again soon.

I don’t know how the farmer felt as he walked away, but I felt privileged to have witnessed a bite-sized master class in communication! I thought to myself this younger gentleman could easily teach a course on how to discuss a controversial subject with someone who holds a different position or understanding.

He listened before expressing his own views. He asked questions to find out where his “opponent” was coming from and displayed genuine interest in what knowledge and insight he brought to the topic. He didn’t tell the farmer he was wrong or act as if he had all the answers. He wasn’t on a mission to convince or convert. Instead he shared where he was at and how he got there, maintaining an open-minded, “seeking” stance and inviting his friend to join in.

The skills of the younger man were so impressive that it was easy to overlook the contribution of his partner to the whole exchange at first. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in many ways, it was actually the farmer who had the more difficult part to play. I don’t know about you, but when my views are challenged, simply being able to listen without getting upset or defensive is a major achievement!

Of all the things I appreciated about the conversation, perhaps even more than how it played out, was that it happened at all. In these polarized times, many of us avoid contentious topics at all costs. Our motives may be good: we are afraid that things will get out of hand and potentially damage our relationships. And for what? Everyone has already made up their minds, we may think, so what’s the point of discussing anything anyway?

One problem with this thinking is that it underestimates the other person, assuming they are incapable of change. By not engaging with them, it robs them of the opportunity to learn and grow. It also shortchanges ourselves. If we never dialogue with people who disagree with us, how will we ever expand our own understanding?

Believing we can’t have respectful discussion with people who disagree with us also could turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy. The ability to engage in civil, courteous debate is like a muscle: the more you use it, the better at it you get. By choosing not to engage with those who disagree with us for fear of starting an argument, we are at risk of unwittingly creating a society that can’t respectfully disagree—that has lost the skills for such civil exchange.

The ability to engage in civil, courteous debate is like a muscle: the more you use it, the better at it you get.

Luis Villasmil

Photo by Luis Villasmil on

This incident reminded me that there is value in respectful disagreements about important issues even when no one changes their mind—maybe especially then. No single conversation is going to change the world, but what about a million non-judgmental, non-defensive differences of opinion in check-out lines, neighborhood parks, church pews, office break rooms, and baseball bleachers across the country? Could that change things for the better?

What do you say we try it and find out?


  1. There is an image of a bridge at the beginning of this story. What do you think it represents?
  2. Do you agree with the idea that respectful disagreement with folks on the other side of contentious issues is worthwhile even when no one changes their mind? Why or why not?
  3. When you encounter someone on the other side of an emotionally-charged issue, what is your first instinct, fight or flight (attack or avoid)? How could you increase the incidence of respectful dialogue with folks who have different views?
  4. Do you take the time to honestly examine your own reasoning and basis for the positions you have taken? How could you actively try to root out your own blind spots and biases?
  5. Do you intentionally expose yourself to other viewpoints and give them a fair hearing or do you prefer to surround yourself with like-minded folks and data that supports your positions? What concrete steps could you take to get out of your “bubble” more?
  6. When was the last time you truly changed your position on an important topic in a meaningful way? What allowed you to make that change? How did it feel? If you rarely or never modify your views, what do you think that says about you? Is it more likely you are 100% right all the time or that you are closed to other perspectives?
  7. When your views are challenged, what is your reaction? Do you get defensive? Why? Do you see changing your mind as a sign of strength or weakness? How did you come to this view?


Banner photo credit by Clay Banks on

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Chris deForest
Chris deForest
February 1, 2020 8:15 pm

This is an important post for our times. It also makes me think about the value of our “third places” of meeting – the places beyond our homes and workplaces: the sidewalk, the store, the pub, the club, and the worship place. Unfortunately, the last in this list – our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques – have tended to congregate like-minded perspectives, as well as homogeneous and segregated groups. So I hope this article can be a good conversation-starter, especially in those places. For my part, I will pray and seek to make it so.

Connie walraven
Connie walraven
February 1, 2020 9:22 pm

Many years ago I heard a speaker say “ when you look at a Dixie cup from the top, you see a large circle, if you are standing under it, you see a small circle, if you are standing at the side you see a different shape. To get the perfect shape of it, you have to listen to each other.

February 2, 2020 3:25 am

Thanks Pastor Chris for taking the time to both read and reflect on my blog. Your comments always add depth and new perspective.
Seth shared with me regarding Randy’s heart attack! I called him today and he seems to be doing well considering what he has been through.

Terry Lieb
Terry Lieb
February 2, 2020 3:29 am
Reply to  U

Thanks Connie for your reflection, I really appreciate and learn from comments such as yours.

February 13, 2020 7:47 pm

I’ve become so upset with our present political situation that, if someone begins to broach the subject, I’ve started to respond with walking away and saying, “Excuse me; I can’t go there!” This blog made me think – and why should a mature, intelligent person NOT go there ? Conversations outside my comfort zone, involving opinions that disagree with mine, can lead to growth. I went back in this blog to review the approach of the younger man and guess what ? Next time I’m confronted with an emotionally charged topic, I’m not going to walk away .

Maria Tjeltveit
Maria Tjeltveit
February 16, 2020 3:19 am

Good to read this post as I am finishing a sermon about needing people with unfeigned hearts. Your story is a powerful example of what we desperately need in our society today. Thank you!

Betty Christy
Betty Christy
February 16, 2020 3:45 am

Terry, this piece moved me deeply. I know I will try to listen to the other side politically, but I have a long way to go. I will try to remember your advice. ThAnks for writing it.

Keith Brintzenhoff
Keith Brintzenhoff
February 16, 2020 8:45 pm

Many worthwhile points. Last time I did an about face was concerning the new roundabout at Moselem Springs. From anti to pro, AFTER it was built and in operation. As for political issues, I do try, but it’s REALLY difficult to discuss things with a closed mind. Any indication of openness, I will continue, but if not, I do give up.

Ron Wildasin
Ron Wildasin
February 16, 2020 9:24 pm

Great insight for communication. I have belonged to a racial justice team for about 3 years and so far I have encountered no strong opposition to the work or programs our team has introduced at our basically all white church. However, I know there are feelings among a few that the problems are limited to the inner cities, so why should we care. The image reminds me of a local organization called “Bridge the Divide.” That’s exactly their mission.

Joyce Marin
February 17, 2020 11:41 am

Important topic for our times, beautifully written. Thanks for telling this simple story. I also appreciated the questions at the end.

Sam Zeiser
Sam Zeiser
February 26, 2020 3:28 pm

Hi, Terry. It’s taken me way too long to latch on to your blog, but here I am and I’m not going away. I’m glad to have the opportunity now to access the kind of thoughtful piece that connects so many of us with your insightful observations. Thank you for committing time get your thoughts out there. You help us think about hard topics. “Reaching Across the Divide” encourages patience, and that is a vital prescription for the fever afflicting public discourse right now. Please, don’t stop! Sam Zeiser

Terry Lieb
Terry Lieb
February 27, 2020 6:08 pm
Reply to  Sam Zeiser

Bishop Sam, I only have a slight understanding of your schedule and the demands on your time and consequently really appreciate your willingness to read my blogs and comment! Your feedback is very important to me because of my strong appreciation for your leadership, overall ministry and theological wrestling style!

Kathy B
Kathy B
March 15, 2020 12:27 pm

Hi Terry, I love this short story and all of the questions at the end! It made me think about how I react when I disagree with someone. I typically will attempt to hear them out, but if they start to become “aggressive” and unwilling to hear my side, then I will usually walk away from the conversation. It’s not worth me upsetting myself, nor losing them as a friend. I look forward to your next post!


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