03/13/2013 11:09 am ET Updated May 13, 2013

Can We Converse If We Don't Like Each Other?

The following essay reflects on and continues A New Conversation on Marriage. This essay comes from Rev. Amy Ziettlow, ELCA pastor and Host of FamilyScholars Conversations.

Can a civil conversation be had between opposing sides of the same-sex marriage debate?

I often wonder, especially as I have joined a movement to start a new conversation on marriage that seeks to strengthen the institution of marriage for all Americans: gay and straight, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. Recently, David Blankenhorn asked Professor Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, this question and his answer surprised me: "Yes, if we like each other."

This answer reminded me of a folktale:

There once was a man chopping wood. Halfway through his task the axe broke, and wanting to complete the job he walked to his next door neighbor who he found in the kitchen.

"May I borrow your axe? Mine just broke and I'd like to finish chopping my firewood."

His neighbor replied, "No, I don't think so. I have to make soup."

Confused, the man explained, "Oh, I don't need your help, just the axe. Soup has nothing to do with your axe."

He neighbor paused and admitted, "Well, truth be told, I don't like you and so one excuse is as good as another."

Haidt concludes that human beings are willing to entertain new ideas and conflicting beliefs when we like the person sharing those ideas or beliefs. Relationship trumps reason, in which being smart means simply being more adept at finding concurring rationalizations for our own beliefs. Engaging in a civil disagreement demands moving beyond building arguments and moving into building relationships.

Haidt offers a metaphor of human identity as a monkey (our rational being, or the "press secretary" for our intuitions) that rides on an elephant (our intuitive being, built on a lifetime of connections pulled from our inner nature and outer nurture). Our reason serves our intuitions, which makes genuinely hearing an idea or argument that conflicts with our intuitions incredibly difficult. If hearing is hard, then changing our minds and behavior nears impossibility. Here is where the likability factor comes in:

"The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in others beliefs. When discussions are hostile, the odds of changes are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent's charges.

But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person's arguments. The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objections from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephant or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants." (68)

Finding ways to like each other creates an environment in which genuine disagreement can be engaged, compromises made possible, and steps forward taken. As unlikely as it may be that opposing people like each other, I have seen it happen. For example, David Blankenhorn attributes, in part, his change of heart concerning same-sex marriage to his friendship with Jonathan Rauch. I saw this between John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher as they came together to write a book about their very different opinions about marriage. They found a way to like each other as people, which created space for them to find what they could like in each other's thoughts, no matter how limited. I saw how likability creates a friendly environment when I was a live blogger during Blankenhorn's conversation with Jonathan Haidt. As I recognized people I know and like, our conversation became more civil. Even Haidt admits that he shares personal stories and epiphanies in the book in order to be likeable. And he is!

And so, perhaps the first step in moving beyond the current marriage culture war will entail not so much seeking to impress each other with our winning arguments, but rather building new relationships, with all the humility, tact, and curiosity that requires.

Amy Ziettlow is a signatory to "A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage." You are invited to read the Call and become a signatory today.