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Listen to Understand



I believe that everything begins with a conversation. In this case, it’s my podcast, where I bridge differences and exchange learning through conversation. Two recent guests on my podcast, Saiyyidah Zaidi PhD and Rev. William Hemphill II, each focus on improving communication and connection with greater intentionality. Their unique identities and worlds underscore two different approaches, offering methods we can all use.


Saiyyidah Zaidi PhD is a Muslim leadership coach in the UK, educated in Practical Theology and dedicated to increasing belonging through conversations. She landed in Practical Theology by accident. Committed to remaining in the white male Christian field, she reflected more deeply on her identity as a Muslim woman of color. The differences, while stressful at times, became a source of growth, pride, and strength. She gained a deeper appreciation of her own identity and place in the field, then re-directed her doctoral studies, conducting an auto-ethnographic study using conversation and a social scientific method to study people’s perspectives. This led to founding the Centre for Belonging and Understanding, using conversation as a central activity.


Saiyyidah believes that her presence has helped bolster the confidence of other minorities in Practical Theology. “People who've been open and willing to engage with me, I think their experience of their own communities has become richer as they understand a little bit more about Islam.” While that was not her initial intention, it has been rewarding, nonetheless.


William, on the other hand, is a Christian Pastoral Therapist in America. He draws on his theological and therapeutic expertise to help couples and families improve their communication, and hence their ability to resolve conflicts. Communication, he explains, involves listening to understand rather than to respond. He recounted a frequent ‘spin cycle’ in his marriage. When he and his wife disagree over parenting, they naturally bring their unique perspectives to the matter. As a therapist, he prioritizes letting his child learn by experience, while his wife, a project manager, prioritizes showing the child impending danger. While they are both good parents and care deeply for their child, their divergent priorities lead to conflicts. When they can see their common parental care along with their respective skills, they can find a solution. He noted that sometimes taking a moment to pray about the dilemma helps to reduce the temperature of the argument and bring a fresh perspective.


How to Cross a Divide

Despite their many differences, Saiyyidah and William each spoke of four methods for bridging difference, whether it is among academic colleagues, political rivals, or family members.


“Whatever it is, a lot of times there's pain that drives us. And so one of the things I like to say about therapeutic work is [I’m] helping people understand the pain that's going on with them.”

Self-reflection – Understand who you are. Know your biases, fears, and triggers. We are often unaware of our behavior and how it affects others. Sometimes the source is pain and fear. William noted: “Whatever it is, a lot of times there's pain that drives us. And so one of the things I like to say about therapeutic work is [I’m] helping people understand the pain that's going on with them.”


Conversation – Saiyyidah noted that conversation is available to us all, and the open exchange of viewpoints and experience can be a powerful antidote to bias, conflict, and fear. As she discovered, greater self-understanding improves connection and reduces fear. “If you're confident and comfortable in who you are, then we can have a higher level of conversation because I don't feel threatened by you, and you don't feel threatened by me.”


“When you focus too much on the similarities, you end up with groupthink, and when you focus too much on the difference, you end up in a place where there's an no engagement between each other.”

Find common ground – Differences will be obvious or emerge in conflict. It is harder to see our similarities. By finding common ground – as caring parents, inquisitive scholars, or religious followers – one can find solutions. That said, Saiyyidah noted the risks of stressing either extreme: “When you focus too much on the similarities, you end up with groupthink, and when you focus too much on the difference, you end up in a place where there's an no engagement between each other.”


Listen and learn – William has a helpful acronym, LEARN, which means: Listen, Empathize, Act, Resist, and Never quit. Understanding each person’s unique identity and resulting perspective can take time and effort but yields rich rewards in reduced tension and greater peace.


I offer these four methods for you to try out along with two thoughts to remember –

As William noted: “We have a habit of fearing what's different.”

And, as Saiyyidah said: “The difference is always going to be there. It's not about changing that. I think it's about respecting that and acknowledging it. And then saying: ‘So what is it that makes us the same?’”



Click here to listen to Saiyyidah’s episode.

Click here to listen to William’s episode.



The ‘Living Our Beliefs’ podcast is available on Apple podcasts, other major podcast platforms, and through my Talking with God Project website.


Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at info@talkingwithgodproject.org. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli


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