I'm currently participating in a mildly sporadic way in a conversation on the facebook Mennonite Church Canada page. I am impressed again with how difficult real understanding is. We assume quickly that the other's comments make sense (or not), which means also that we assume quickly that we know what the other has said. In fact, usually we don't.
I like the MCCanada discussion because the participants keep going while trying to figure out what others have said; the contrast with public sites is great. (Try going to CBC, for example, and reading all the comments made on news stories there. CBC is mild; CNN much worse; other sites are just depressing.) But even with great goodwill and a lot of effort, I suspect we don't understand each other well at all.
If we are going to understand each other at all in the conversations of life, we have to begin with a profound commitment to hear the other person. A negative counter-example is the failure of participants in the Anglican Communion to hear each other when they discuss whether or not they should ordain practicing homosexuals as Anglican priests. African Bishops have been quoted as asking North American Bishops if they would like prayer to have the demons possessing them cast out. One can guess that the African Bishops really don't understand what their North American counterparts are really saying.
But the North Americans fare no better; they speak in even worse terms. I remember listening to Bishop Sponge on a Minnesota Public Radio program. He stated that the African Bishops are unsophisticated, too primitive to understand the issue at hand. His language was frankly racist, and it was quite clear that he (and the North American Bishops in general) does not understand his African counterparts.
Do we do better, we Mennonites? Not necessarily. Wave Franklin Graham in front of our noses, and we react strongly enough to make me suspicious.
When someone sounds convinced that their case is complete and is convinced that those who disagree with them are morally or intellectually deficient, I get suspicious. I begin to wonder if we have really understood the other. I suggest some basic presuppositions in any conversation:
1) Assume that the other person is smart enough to have something worth saying.
2) Assume that the other person may be right in what they think.
3) Assume that the other person may not have understood my point.
4) Assume that I may be right in what I think.
5) Assume that real understanding takes significant conversation back and forth -- pushing each other and testing each other in the search for meaning.
6) Assume that something in the wrong position is right and worth learning from.
These are simple points. They are not exhaustive. I don't practice them consistently. But they give me a place to start in all my conversations online and in person.