The conversation was flowing as usual at a dinner with friends when suddenly my friend grew very angry. I did not see this outburst coming.

He asked a question about the recent national election, which I responded to in a very polite manner. He accused me of a lack of sensitivity to his question and of having a preformed answer that included my biases.

Such is the nature of the public square today. The slightest misstep leads to a tirade of language that lacks any relationship to civility. If your response is not what the person expects to hear, then the attack is on.

I apologized for any misunderstanding; however, we spent the remainder of the evening in a very uneasy silence.

Our friendship stretches for more than 30 years and, yes, I am aware of most of his convictions. Until this point, we have been able to have meaningful rational discussions on a wide variety of issues.

Somehow the current climate has put an end to rational discussions. Either you agree or you disagree. If you disagree, then you are now an enemy.

Where did civility go?

An American Airlines flight from Miami to London loaded with passengers was forced to return to Miami after traveling more than 500 miles because a passenger became combative over wearing a mask. She clearly knew the rules before boarding the plane.

Rioters stormed our nation’s capital and shredded 200 years of history of peaceably passing power from one administration to another. They were responding to a lie that had been repeated over and over again.

Where has reason gone?

Many of us feel helpless to do anything, but there is something that we can all do, if we are willing to make the effort.

A song that became popular in the late 1950s and ’60s carries the answer, “Let there Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin with Me.” The song was first introduced to youth groups and then its popularity spread around the world.

Peacemaking isn’t passivity, and it doesn’t mean that we keep silent in the face of injustice, oppression and falsehood. Jesus made it clear that the peaceable kingdom he envisioned would not come easily or without unrest (Matthew 10), and the prophet Jeremiah condemned those who proclaimed peace when there was no peace (6:14).

So, there are times to speak out and times to keep silent, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us (3:7). Knowing the difference isn’t easy, and each of us must make that decision on a case-by-case basis.

Upon further reflection, I concluded that I should not have answered my friend’s question. I should have remained silent. AA puts it even more directly, “You don’t have to go to every fight to which you are invited.”

Learning to let it go is very hard. I had a choice, and I made the wrong one. I should have just listened.

Perhaps if I had listened longer or more intently, I would have heard his frustration. I would have learned that he was making a statement not asking a question. Perhaps he just wanted someone to listen.

Listening is the hardest communication skill to learn. In 1995, I published Twelve Keys to Improved Communication. The first of those keys is still the most important, “Stop talking.”

We never learn anything when we are talking. Just because we have stopped talking doesn’t mean that we are listening. So many of us use times of silence to craft our response. That is not listening.

I also developed a pledge to accompany those keys:

“I will listen to you without interruption for at least two minutes. I will look at you while you are talking and not engage in any other activity. When I do respond to you, I will respond appropriately to what you said. I will not pin a label on you or call you names. I will not raise my voice or use profanity. I will keep my remarks centered in the present and not dredge up the past. I will treat you with the same respect that I demand for myself.”

Most of us find it hard to listen for two minutes without being distracted. We’re not alone, as people have found it hard to listen for centuries.

Most of us have hot buttons that, when pushed, cause us to stop listening and get ready to fight. With work, we can learn to recognize our hot buttons and strive to overcome them.

The one thing we can all do is to make sure that we do not contribute to the dysfunction.

The song writers, Jill Jackson-Miller and Sly Miller, point the way: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

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