THERE IS A CERTAIN TYPE of situation you know all too well: dinnertime, the whole family gathered around, perhaps even a few visitors ... so, of course, that is when your 18-year-old, with a combination of studied insouciance and insolence (only possible for a few, obnoxious years) announces he has registered to vote and is voting for the other party. It can be far worse: perhaps it is your spouse, as traumatized and bereaved as you after the types of terrible losses that so often pile up on one another, refusing to go to church with you after all these years because, "I am not really sure I even believe in God. Maybe I'm an atheist."
Most people will proceed to destroy the conversation with one or more of a few predictable missteps: primarily terror, pride, defensiveness, or a win/lose mindset. Any of them hampers the ability to listen, and that means the other person will not really speak. Words will come out, but not the ones that you both need to hear.
Perhaps the error is terror--fear that your child will be gravely misled and become your enemy, or will waste money and time pursuing a useless degree, or otherwise turn out to be a profound disappointment. Of course, voting a particular way at age 18 may not be correlated to any of these things, but just the same, you foresee a trend. Only by shelving your fear and asking genuine--not sarcastic or demeaning--open-ended questions and listening carefully, seeking to understand, will you be able to engage in a conversation. If you do this well enough, it will not be the last real conversation.
Pride short-circuits listening because it rears up and demands that it be heard right this minute. No one should have an opinion on everything and, even for an expert, it might be prudent to keep most of your opinions to yourself. A battle of egos rarely goes well. Driving your teenager to slam down his fork and stomp into his room is not winning. It is losing. You successfully humiliated an idealistic child trying to prove he is almost grown up. Congratulations.
Pride's first cousin is defensiveness. Let us consider the wife who asserts, on the heels of much anguish, she is an atheist (and you are not). Panic sets in: what are you to do? Suppose she challenges you on your faith? That would be terrible because, beyond a certain smug, "Well, I just believe because . . . well, because," perhaps you are not quite sure what else you would say. If she always has been the more-verbally nimble during an...