by Annette Bridges. ©2009. All rights reserved.

It seems to me that most folks see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear and read into what they read according to their biases and prejudices.

“I am, in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices — made up of likings and dislikings…” wrote the 19th century essayist, Charles Lamb. We are part of a world, country — or even a neighborhood — with people from many different educational and social backgrounds, cultures, traditions, experiences and spiritual teachings. So of course what inspires me, what amuses me or what makes me cry will be different from what inspires, amuses and makes you cry.

For that matter, even in the same family, I suspect most would agree that we all have varying preferences and tastes in such things as movies, music, books and food. We all have individual opinions on political, social and spiritual matters and our own unique convictions on what is most important.

It’s fascinating to me how two people can read the same statement and interpret its meaning very differently. Or that two people can hear the same lecture and it speak to each in a different way. But should we be surprised when this happens? Or should we be angered that a neighbor or a brother has a completely different stance and viewpoint on an issue — an issue equally important to both of us?

About thirty years ago, I was very active in a political and social movement. I marched in rallies and participated in debates and various public presentations. Name-calling and emotions were high. I was certain that what I believed in and was verbally fighting for was right and good for my country. And I was appalled and angered by anyone who thought differently from me. I could not even begin to understand their sentiments, and frankly I didn’t want to. So I definitely never tried.

It seems my country is again at odds on some very important issues — issues that impact all of us and are undoubtedly equally important to those verbally fighting on both sides of the issues. But who is right and who is wrong?

Through the years, I’ve learned that on many topics, only history can determine what was right or wrong. In the meantime, it’s only our biased opinions making a premature judgment. Or in the words of David Brinkley (CNN 1995): “A biased opinion is one you don’t agree with.”

Yet in America, it is important that we let our voices be heard! We are supposed to be a government of the people, for the people and by the people. It seems what we need to remember is that we are never going to all agree on everything. And this fact is okay. The issue we feel very strongly about may fail — as mine did thirty years ago.

But I am realizing today, that it is not a good thing that I didn’t and still don’t understand those who believed differently than me on an issue that I felt so strongly about — and still do I might add. And I must admit that there have been many other times in my experience when I was confused, angered or disappointed by differing positions and feelings. And I will tell you that in most of these instances, I made no attempt to fully understand why others felt the way they did.

It occurs to me now that if we hope to be understood, we must first understand others.

Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, made a poignant point when he said, “The single, biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Some define communication as an attempt to create shared understanding, which includes a variety of skills such as processing, listening, observing, speaking, questioning, analyzing and evaluating. When any skill is lacking, it is difficult to conclude that communication has taken place.

Perhaps the skill we most often lack is proficiency in listening. I know I could be a better listener! And I’m convinced that an understanding of others is never reached without sincere listening — listening that truly seeks and endeavors to understand an opposing point of view. This type of listening will result in understanding that at the very least can respect and appreciate a difference of opinion.

Then even when we don’t all see eye to eye, we can have an honest debate on an important issue and maybe — just maybe — make wiser decisions.