I recently had a conversation with my friend, a young woman who feels strongly about people needing to reduce their air travel in order to slow down climate change. “Anna” is intelligent and well-informed, and she laid down a barrage of impassioned, fact-based arguments to make the case that it was imperative for everyone, including me, to change my flight habits. Air travel, it turns out, is a major producer of carbon emissions. She additionally argued that reducing flying was the most important and, moreover, the only meaningful action that an individual could take; everything else, including recycling, was a waste of effort.

The absoluteness of her views and her single focus on flying troubled me—it seems to me that there are many ways in which individuals, depending on their life situations and interests, could fight climate change. For example, influencing political decision makers is an avenue with potentially huge leverage for stopping climate change through legislation on industries and individuals. Also, I’m not ready to consign reusing, reducing, and recycling to the wastebasket—the combined efforts of hundreds of millions of consumers make a difference both in reducing carbon emissions and conserving natural resources. In short, I believe that attacking the problem in multiple ways is the best strategy.

Besides, I need to fly—my sons live across the country and my mom across the pond.

During our conversation, Anna didn’t stop to ask me what I thought, and when I managed to get a word in edgewise she didn’t ask me clarifying questions, and so her thrust seemed to be to prove me wrong without hearing me out. I felt that my views were being disrespected and, as a result, I ended up defending mine against hers—even though I fundamentally agree with her about the need to reduce air travel!

Tempest in a teapot?

Maybe. But the fact that our potentially compatible views became strongly polarized over a 30-minute conversation and that we’ve been wary of each other ever since gives me pause. Also—how did I so easily entangle myself in an emotional debate? Like Anna, I was absolute and impassioned in my youth but nowadays I’m a calm and deliberate person—right?

Looking back at our conversation, I remembered something I heard a long time ago: Humility is a prerequisite for learning. If you go into a conversation thinking that you already have all the relevant facts and that your view is the right one, you won’t learn anything new; you’ve closed your mind to that possibility. Perhaps worse, by not seeking or even being open to hear other information and interpretations, you signal to the other person that they and their views are wrong. And if the conversation takes on the tone of one person trying to convince the other—as it often does—both people end up feeling under attack and, amidst their efforts to defend themselves, closing their ears and their minds.

In my conversation with Anna I learned a lot of valuable information about aviation and carbon emissions. I witnessed an impassioned defense of the Earth, which makes me hopeful about  the future custody of our planet. In addition, I was reminded of the importance of humility when approaching a person whose views are different from mine: If I approach the conversation with humility and an open mind, I may learn something—and, importantly, my humility is critical for the other person to see things differently, too.
Humility, then, is key to building common ground and achieving unity.

Outi Papamarcos is an engineer, a sociolinguist, and a grandmother. She believes that humility is essential to respectful treatment of others but has also come to see that she must continually remind herself of this basic fact.

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