Recently I used a ride-sharing service that shall remain nameless. I was with another law professor on our way to the airport from a weeklong conference. It was a 30-minute ride.
The driver was a relatively young person. For the first half of the ride, he drove without speaking. My friend and I discussed the conference, some professional gossip, and what we will be working on next year.
We reviewed the conference and I described one of the sessions I attended, on raising average Americans’ awareness about participating in the regulatory process. Speaking colloquially, I summarized a key point from the session: outside of the realm of law professors, many people are basically “stupid” about the administrative process. It was not a word used in the session; it was my shorthand to mean ill-informed.
That colloquial word somehow emboldened the driver to speak up.
“Are you lawyers?”
We told him we are law professors, and we don’t practice law anymore. That did not give him any pause.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Our extreme listening saga began as the driver shared his personal passion and desire to sue the federal government. He has been studying information about a few globally prominent and historically famous billionaire families. He believes they have some connection to the continent of Antarctica. Something is happening in Antarctica, and he wants to know more about it. Specifically, he said, he wants to get into court and have a judge—and the public—take him seriously.
My friend and I gave him some leeway. “To get into court, you have to have a legal claim. You have to be injured in some way that the courts would recognize as something they spend their time on.”
He did not have a sense what his claim would be. He did say he feels Antarctica has resources that are either not being used or are being used by global families in some way that needs to be discovered and revealed. “I want to do something drastic,” he said. “I want to make a difference.”
This was a listening challenge for several reasons. I didn’t want to listen to him at all; I wanted to talk to my friend. I didn’t believe anything he was saying. And I didn’t agree with his choices to spend his time ruminating on such theories. He’s about the same age as many law students, and it made me feel like he was wasting his off-hours from work staring at various websites. Maybe he needs an outlet for his curiosity and engagement with big questions because he has to work and earn instead of pursuing formal education. That is possible, perhaps even likely. But whatever the reason for his life situation here and now, there is wisdom in focusing one’s efforts on changing one’s actual sphere of influence. (I believe that’s from Stephen Covey.) Yes, the Internet is amazing and allows investigation plus amplification of voices—but it does seem that uncovering a global conspiracy in Antarctica is outside the sphere of a 24-year-old ride-sharing driver in a southern U.S. state.
Whether to keep listening and if so, how to manage this conversation?
I tried echoing about “making a difference.” I asked him if he has family in the U.S. and he said yes, although they live almost a thousand miles away. I said, “When I start to think about making a difference, I think about my family and how I can help them. That’s something I know I can work on.”
My friend nodded toward me, but her eyes signaled a desire for exit.
The driver repeated his desire to do something and make a statement. He mentioned wanting to know what NASA is doing in Antarctica.
I tried to think of something he could actually do. I told him about the Freedom of Information Act. I also told him about the ability to file a public comment if he found an agency that is dealing with Antarctica in some way.
When there was a short lull in the conversation, I turned it back to my friend with a moderately loud question aimed solely at her. She picked up the conversation and we reclaimed the rest of our time—although not really since there were only about five minutes left in the ride and urgent questions about airlines and terminals and such.
A few thoughts lingered after this conversation.
There aren’t that many spaces in this world where people with extremely different viewpoints come together to discuss those viewpoints in a context expected to be civil. I am not sure what persona this guy might use while researching his interests online, but his persona while driving the car was extremely professional and courteous. Reflecting on our conversation raised several important points for engaging with people with different viewpoints.
First, conversations work best in good faith. Try to find some area of common ground. Try to find a way to help the other person on their chosen journey even if you really don’t agree with their choices.
Second, honor the risks that the other person in a conversation takes. This guy took a risk by asking us whether we are lawyers. He used caveats like “I know it might sound crazy, but….” If we had curtly cut off the conversation and used all the time for ourselves, what would his takeaway have been? Would we have confirmed that lawyers are jerks?
Third, stand for your own beliefs, ideally with kindness. At one point my friend explained what we teach: “The most important thing, really, is critical thinking—the ability to tell what’s true from what’s false.” She was giving him something to think about in the future, and laying out a boundary for the immediate conversation.
Finally, look for opportunities in a conversation. One way to build a conversation is to echo what the other person is saying and add more. You can sometimes shape the conversation by what you choose to echo. The most famous improvisational technique is “Yes, and…”
Also look for opportunities to refocus. Ending a conversation is a skill, especially when you’re in a small car with miles to go until the airport.