When I type on the keys of my keyboard, meaningful words appear on the screen in front of me. Because of this, it is possible for you, the reader, to understand what I want to say.
When I wish to access my e-mail, I press down certain keys in a particular sequence, and this allows me access to my inbox and lets me in on its latest secrets. In the same way, the human soul has keys, and if we press them down in the right manner, we will be able to express ourselves correctly, and when we communicate with others, we will be able to arrive at a point of agreement or be convincing in what we say.
How many of us, alas, are good at pressing the right buttons? How many of us have a mastery of conversational skills? Frankly, many of us are not very clear and precise in what we say when we speak with our parents, our children, our spouses, or even with our colleagues and supervisors at work. Why is this?
I believe it has to do with placing too much emphasis on convincing others instead of on trying to lead them to a point of agreement. In other words, we start by propounding our point of view to others when what we should be doing is guiding them gradually through our arguments so that they can arrive at those conclusions for themselves.
For instance, I might insist on telling you about the snake that I see while describing the tree or the wall that you are seeing. Certainly, there is no way on Earth that you are going to be able to see what I am seeing as long as you possess two eyes and common sense.
Sorry! Did I just push the wrong keys?
Ok. Let me back off a little and try to lead you to the conclusion that I want you to arrive at. I will start by telling you the story of the blind men and the elephant.
Once upon a time there were six blind men who wanted to “see” an elephant. The first one approached the elephant and touched its trunk and said: “An elephant is nothing but a snake.”
The second man’s hand touched the elephant’s leg and said: “Not at all, it is a tree.”
The third man touched the elephant’s side and said: “Rather, it is a wall.”
The fourth felt its tusk and said: “It is a spear.”
The fifth man grabbed its tail and said: “No, it is a rope.”
The last blind man felt the elephant’s ear and concluded: “It is like a fan.”
Of course, each of the blind men was only describing what he had experienced. Had the man who perceived a snake pulled towards him the man who perceived a spear, he would have also been able to see the snake. If the six men had changed places with each other, each of them would have come away seeing the other aspects of the truth. They would have agreed with each other instead of arguing.
The moral of the story is that a person becomes blind to other aspects of the truth when he comes to believe that he is the only one capable of seeing it. We often fail to appreciate the experiences of others and instead try to impose our own perceptions upon them. The result is that we stick to our views and they stick to theirs. The dialogue fails, no one wins, and nothing is achieved.
In order to appreciate the perspectives of others, we have to understand their religious backgrounds, the traditional values they uphold, their personal beliefs, and their intellectual upbringing. Of course, we will never hope to understand all of those things unless we first learn how to be good listeners and cultivate the requisite good manners. In this way, we will get a clear picture of the perspective of those with whom we are speaking. It is this which gives us the ability to press the right buttons and get access to their souls, so we can guide them to seeing things from our point of view.
An excellent example of the art of pushing the right buttons is to be found in Abraham’s argument with his people:
When the night grew dark upon him he beheld a star. He said: “This is my Lord.” But when it set, he said: “I love not things that set.” And when he saw the moon uprising, he exclaimed: “This is my Lord.” But when it set, he said: “Unless my Lord guides me, I surely shall become one of the folk who are astray.” And when he saw the sun uprising, he cried: “This is my Lord! This is greater!” And when it set he exclaimed: “O my people! Lo! I am free from all that ye associate (with Him). Lo! I have turned my face toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, as one by nature upright, and I am not of the idolaters.” [Sûrah al-An`âm: 76-79]
Notice the inquisitive approach that he takes, how he piques their curiosity and in doing so leads them to the desired conclusion. Now look at what Abraham (peace be upon him) said to his people after he arrived at this conclusion:
His people argued with him. He said: “Dispute ye with me concerning Allah when He hath guided me? I fear not at all that which ye set up beside Him unless my Lord willeth aught. My Lord includeth all things in His knowledge. Will ye not then remember? How should I fear that which ye set up beside Him, when ye fear not to set up beside Allah that for which He hath revealed unto you no warrant? Which of the two factions hath more right to safety? (Answer me that) if ye have knowledge.” [Sûrah al-An`âm: 80-81]
On another occasion, Abraham (peace be upon him) argues with his people in what is one of the best examples of powerful dialogue. Notice Abraham’s approach – how he makes his decisive blow using the beliefs of the people he is disputing with rather than his own beliefs:
They said: “Is it thou who hast done this to our gods, O Abraham?” He said: “But this, their chief (idol) hath done it. So question them, if they can speak.” Then gathered they apart and said: “Lo! ye yourselves are the wrong-doers.” [Sûrah al-Anbiyâ’: 62-64]
The lesson to be learned from the story of Abraham (peace be upon him) is that imposing your own beliefs upon others can get in the way of you achieving your desired outcome. Debating with people on their own ideological ground is more effective. The most important lesson in all of this is that if we are to speak to them on their own level, we must first learn to listen.
Remember this the next time you prepare to get into a dialogue with someone. Keep in mind that in order for you to lead another person to your point of view, you are going to have to put yourself in that person’s place. This is the only way that you will be able to confront the three bugbears that so often govern his perspective: religious background, traditional values, and personal beliefs, as well as the intellectual upbringing that those bugbears all stem from. As you confront these bugbears, make sure to uphold the three other components of the person’s viewpoint and take care not compromise them in any way: the facts possessed by the person you are dealing with, his dignity, and his feelings. These are the three things that you have to win over to your side.
Words are magical things. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Indeed, in eloquent speech there is magic.” [Sahîh Muslim
Words posses the power to conquer the heart and soul and bring us to our goals. If you are to master this magic, you need to learn the right “spell”, the right combination of keystrokes to enter the password. This will only happen if you learn to listen. So listen, sympathize, understand, and conceptualize. Then you can take what you learn from listening and use it to uncover those keystrokes.
It is also important that you prepare yourself in advance for the intellectual battle. You should try to avoid impromptu arguments as much as possible. Try to schedule them ahead of time so you can prepare for them. You should give yourself enough time to study the facts and circumstances before negotiating with your parents, children, spouse, or colleagues.
This is of critical importance when calling others to Allah. In this field, it is necessary for you to develop your dialogue skills so you can turn people’s eyes to the truth – as Moses did with the magicians when he “threw his staff and lo! it swallowed that which they did falsely show.” [Sûrah al-Shu`arâ’