Why Talk to My Enemy?
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
— Nelson Mandela, Anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient
Do you have enemies? It’s a question that may seem straightforward, but the reality is much more complex. You may say with a resounding “No! I don’t have enemies,” but upon closer examination, you may find that you have people in your life who make you feel uncomfortable, shameful, or even triggered. It could be the person in the office who constantly undermines you, or a family member with whom you always seem to clash. It may be the neighbor who holds opposing beliefs (with the lawn signs to prove it), or even the friend who always seems to make you wrong, so they can be right. The truth is, we all have individuals who bring conflict, hostility, or even persecution into our lives due to differing identities or ideologies. In today’s world, we see differences in beliefs, political leanings, and cultural values give rise to hostility, even enmity between people. It’s increasingly common to see once-close friends become foes over divisive issues such as vaccinations, racial reckonings, book bans, police shootings, the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, transgender rights, and more.
You may be wondering, “Why would I want to talk to my enemy?” A friend asked me the same question, saying: “Won’t this just open me up to being harmed or injured?” It’s true that interpersonal conflicts and hostility can leave us feeling bruised and broken. Yet avoiding our enemies does not solve the underlying problem. Rather, it can prolong the conflict and prevent us from achieving any resolution. Engaging with our foes, on the other hand, can help us gain a deeper understanding of their perspective, and vice versa. Through these difficult interactions, we have the opportunity to transform such adversity into a catalyst for positive change — from a micro, interpersonal level to a macro, global level.
But why is it so hard to engage with those who hold different beliefs or values from our own? Life is an ongoing battle against — or perhaps you could say “a dance with” — our own biases, cultural programming, and emotional ignorance. In childhood, we are deeply influenced by the cultural norms, religious or moral beliefs, and social narratives of our immediate environment. This conditioning is so pervasive that, as the renowned physicist Albert Einstein said, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”
As we mature into adulthood, we tend to carry forward this set of beliefs and biases we’ve acquired. These are often based on neither reason nor personal experience. This is my story as well.
My father grew up poor, one of ten children, in New Orleans, Louisiana. From a young age, he worked odd jobs and walked to school with newspapers in his shoes to fill the holes. My grandmother worked as a maid for a wealthy Jewish socialite and her husband. A great matriarch, my grandmother steadfastly took care of her large family, always cooking up tasty fare such as gumbo, jambalaya, crawdads, pralines, and bread pudding for community functions, sometimes as work, sometimes as service as homage to her Catholic faith. She ensured there was always hot food on the stove, and that family, friends and neighbors were never hungry. Although they were poor, my dad says, “We never felt poor.” My grandfather worked alongside my grandmother, but he was an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis of the liver at an early age.
At the age of 18, my dad registered for the local college but didn’t have any money to attend, so he joined the U.S. Air Force, seeing it as his only opportunity to improve his circumstances. He was stationed in England, where he was addressed as “Sir” for the first time in his life. It was there that he met my mother at a nightclub in London. She was a model from a well-to-do family from the English countryside who was attending finishing school in London. They married after an 11-month courtship in May, 1968.
The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) documented my parents’wedding because the network was filming a documentary called “Mixed Marriages in Britain.” When the documentary was aired a few months after the wedding, their wedding kiss was deemed controversial and censored by British TV Times. The U.S. Air Force didn’t want the bad press, so they decided to send my parents back to America. My dad felt so accepted and safe in England, far removed from the Jim Crow laws, assassinations of Black leaders, and Vietnam protests happening in America, that he didn’t want to leave. But he didn’t have a choice.
In 1968, my parents returned briefly to New Orleans just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. My mom experienced a culture shock upon witnessing the poverty and segregation in the South, along with the overall political turmoil in America. Before the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia in 1967, interracial marriage encountered significant opposition in the South. The ruling deemed laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional. As a result of this relatively recent change, the U.S. Military, citing safety concerns, avoided stationing troops in interracial marriages south of the Mason-Dixon line.This is why my parents were eventually stationed in Colorado Springs, Colorado where my brother was born. And a few years later, they moved to Sacramento, California, where I was eventually born. My dad believed that California was a more hospitable place for interracial marriages and children.
My dad always loved New Orleans, as it was home to him. Yet he had a negative perception of the South and how Black people were historically treated there.
Based on the stories my dad told me and the exhaustion I saw in his eyes, I adopted a bias against the American South, believing it was unsafe and inhospitable. I concluded that Southerners were backward, closed-minded, and racist. When I heard a Southern drawl from a white person, I immediately thought, “They must be racist.” It didn’t occur to me that this was my own bias rearing its ugly head. It wasn’t until my adult years that I recognized I needed to unlearn some of my beliefs.
Like many of us, for the longest time, I was convinced that my beliefs were the correct ones and that anyone who disagreed with me was simply wrong or “not enlightened.” I saw the world through a narrow lens, specifically as an “open-minded, barefooted” Californian, but I wasn’t as open-minded as I thought. As I began to engage more deeply with people from different backgrounds and with different beliefs, I slowly began to realize that my way of thinking was not the only valid one.
This realization was both humbling and liberating. I was humbled because I had to confront the fact that I had been wrong about so many things, and that there was still so much for me to learn. But I was also liberated because I was able to shed the narrow-mindedness that had been holding me back. By engaging with my “enemies,” I had gained a broader and more nuanced understanding of the world.
Of course, engaging with our adversaries is not an easy feat. It requires patience, empathy, and a willingness to listen, setting aside our preconceived notions and being open to the possibility that we might be wrong. The rewards of such engagement are immense as we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, our adversaries, and the world around us, and we can grow and evolve into higher levels of emotional maturity and spiritual growth. It wasn’t until my early 40s, after a decade of personal and professional development work and developing new relationships, that I began to unlearn my biases. Visiting places like Montgomery, Alabama, and St. Louis, Missouri, and making space for people of differing beliefs, ideologies, and walks of life helped me to recognize the value of challenging conversations across differences. Through engagement, I discovered a new world of knowledge and growth, and my life became more rich and fulfilling. Even now, I recognize that I am still a work in progress.
Look around: People are hurting and traumatized. In a world where hate, fear, and anger seem to dominate public discourse, it’s more important than ever to learn how to engage with others, even those we may perceive as our enemies. As someone who has had to navigate the complexities of race and culture from a young age, I know firsthand the challenges that come with bridging divides. But I also know that it’s possible to find common ground and move toward mutual healing and understanding.
Through my work as a leadership speaker and certified mediator, I’ve witnessed both the harm that can come from miscommunication and the transformative power of dialogue done right.That’s why I believe that we can bridge these divides, and why I wrote How to Talk to Your Enemies, a guide to help you communicate confidently and mindfully in all your relationships, from the friendly to the contentious.
With real-world tools and strategies for practicing mindful communication, you’ll learn how to navigate even the most divisive interactions with grace and compassion. By unleashing the power of dialogue, you can shift your most challenging conversations from hostility to healing, and make your life and the lives of those around you richer and more fulfilling.
In the following pages, I will provide you with what you need to help you engage in healthy dialogues with others, including those you may be inclined to avoid. How to Talk to Your Enemies is divided into three parts. Part One introduces a mindful communication framework, which includes an overview of the brain science behind human behavior and why we say what we say. We will also discuss the importance of body language, tone, words to avoid, and words to use to start the conversation off on a positive note.
Part Two is a how-to reference that addresses hot-button conversations, challenging racism and bullying, enforcing boundaries, resolving conflicts, and healing broken relationships. Specific communication responses — we’ll call them “Mindful Communication Responses” — will be provided to help shift us from hostile communication styles into peaceful dialogue. Please note that these Mindful Communication Responses are considerations and suggestions for you. It’s up to you to embody this language, try it on for size, and put it into your own words, so you can more easily refer to and use these tools.
Part Two is divided into five chapters:
Communicating with Yourself, which involves intrapersonal communication, also known as self-talk. This is foundational for us to come into self-awareness and “hold counsel” with ourselves before we even open our mouths. This chapter includes mindfulness practices like breathwork and self-reflection skills.
Communicating with Others, which is where the rubber meets the road: interpersonal communication. We will learn the importance of empathetic listening, how to apologize, and how to ask questions that don’t startle or offend but rather create connection.
Communicating Through Differences, which involves how to communicate over tough issues such as moral or political differences, and how to bridge ideological divides.
Communicating Through Conflict, which involves resolving disputes when both parties want to be right and are fighting for their individual needs.
Finally, Communicating Through Harm, which covers situations when you are the impacted person and target of racism, bullying, or even hate speech (or perhaps even the perpetrator). There may be situations when talking to an enemy requires courage and bravery when the conditions don’t feel so safe.
And Part Three is simply a call to action.
KEEP IN MIND: The purpose of this book is not to address or analyze the sociopolitical issues that plague current times. Instead, its intention is to provide timeless tools for engaging in positive and productive conversations, without pushing any specific beliefs or opinions. The human interest stories included in this book serve as living examples of how mindful communication can facilitate learning and personal growth. Furthermore, I make references to various religious texts and wisdom traditions — from Jesus to the Buddha and others — to enrich the lessons, rather than to advocate for any particular faith. Faith is a personal choice, and I trust that we are open-minded enough to derive valuable insights from all traditions. Additionally, this book features inspirational quotes from historical figures who have made a lasting impact in the realms of spirituality, thought leadership, and politics. I encourage readers to appreciate the essence of these quotes while remembering not to judge these leaders based on our present-day perspectives and knowledge.
Throughout the book, I will draw on situational analysis and stories from my own life, my colleagues, workshop participants from my worldwide trainings, and leaders in the peace movement.
Leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Thich Nhat Hanh, among others, have shown grace and empathy in transforming unfortunate and even hostile situations into positive, life-affirming results. It takes a special person to talk to their enemies, and I firmly believe that, with the tools and practices provided in this book, that person can be you.
The path to healing and peace lies in navigating these difficult interactions we encounter. This book will show you how.