By Ed Maier, Former Andersen Partner

I hope each of you had a wonderful 2023 holiday season and had time to enjoy many fun moments with your family and friends!

Every year I send out a holiday message to people in my contact list. I received a good amount of positive feedback from that message this year. So I thought I would share it with you. I think it is not just pertinent for the holidays. It is more timeless in its usefulness.

In my annual message I draw regularly on the writings of Charles Dickens in his novella, A Christmas Carol. A favorite scene of mine takes place as the primary character, Ebenezer Scrooge, leaves his office on Christmas Eve to return to his dismal home for another cold dinner in darkness. On his way, he is “accosted” by two gentlemen who are raising alms for the poor. They explain that there is a need to take care of those who are less fortunate; but Ebenezer wants nothing to do with any such “nonsense”. He would not dare to part with any of his hard-earned money by giving it to someone else. He believes the poor and downtrodden deserve their lot in life because they do not work as hard as he does. He has made himself into what he is. They should do the same. If they won’t pick themselves up by their bootstraps and earn their keep, he has a simple, straightforward solution. He responds by shouting: “Are there no prisons…And the Union workhouses...Are they still in operation?” The charity workers respond that many would rather die than go to the prisons or the workhouses, and Scrooge adds: “If they would rather die, they better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Those who are not like him—industrious, productive members of society--should at best be ignored or, at worst, be dealt with appropriately.

The exchange Scrooge has with these two businessmen reminds me of some of the “conversations” we have in the world today. They tend to be more rancorous, sometimes almost vicious, between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals--or “Reds” and “Blues”. On any issue, each has a point of view that is almost exactly the opposite of the other, without room for compromise. One side thinks we should have more security or law enforcement in place to monitor and control potentially “dangerous” elements of the population. The other side thinks we need less physical security, e.g., “defunding the police” and more resources focused on social change to improve the lot in life of the less fortunate. One side thinks diversity, equity and inclusion programs adopted by so many businesses are useful in creating more equity in the workplace. Others think it is just a type of reverse discrimination. There is little conversation or dialogue that is held to form compromise and solve problems. There is more and more of a “my way or the highway” attitude.

But think about what happens to Scrooge by the end of the story. He is visited by four spirits who help him see the world through a different lens. His conversations with them are not as rancorous as with the businessmen. He listens, sometimes fearfully, but he listens.

I suggest we challenge ourselves to create opportunities to have respectful conversations with others about potentially difficult or divisive issues. I learned about doing this through my work with two not-for-profit organizations I have mentioned in the past. Project Unity is a Dallas-based organization devoted to improving communications regarding matters of race; Braver Angels is a national organization devoted to improving communications regarding matters of governance, politics, economics and other subjects of national interest.

The holiday dinner table brings together many family members and friends who often have different experiences, beliefs and opinions. But this is not the only time you get together with friends or family members who might view the world differently than you. And if you are inclined to try out my recommendation, I don’t think you need to do it around the family dinner table or with a small group of people. First, I suggest you try this one-to-one with a friend or a relative or a co-worker who might be interested. Select someone who you know has some different opinions than yours. Select three subjects to discuss beforehand. When you do this for the first few times, you don’t necessarily have to choose political subjects. They can be about specific sports teams or movies or famous people. You can pick some items which create controversy from local news articles about issues in your community. Then conduct a round of questioning like this: Ask your conversation partner what they think of the issue; what has been their experience related to the issue? Has it had a personal effect on them (if they care to share that, but it is not necessary)? You must remain quiet while your conversation partner responds. Don’t interrupt her or him; don’t ask questions. Just listen to what they have to say. It’s OK to ask questions for clarification, but not to challenge or “correct” the other person.

After they are finished talking, it is your turn to respond. Tell them what you heard them say. Tell them how you reacted to it. And state your own point of view regarding the issue. Then give them an opportunity to respond to you. Also remember that it is not your role, or their role, to correct each other’s facts. Your primary role is to listen. I think you will find it is a challenge to conduct a conversation session like this. But I believe, as Scrooge learned from his conversations with the spirits who visited him, something can be learned from the process. Try it. Engage in dialogue with it. Have fun with it! After you have engaged for awhile and exhausted your points of view for that round, discuss how you felt about the experience. Is it worth trying to do it again? Would it make sense to try to engage in a conversation like this with someone else?

I hope you will give an exercise like this a chance. I believe we have too many conversations in which we speak past others rather than to them. There are too many conversations in which we are too busy thinking about how we will respond to what someone else says, rather than structuring our own point of view in a straightforward, understandable, calm and collected manner. At some point, you might even begin to develop some mutually agreeable solutions to the issues each of you raises. But by no means should that be the goal the first few times you engage with others in one of these conversations. All you are doing is seeking to understand.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. If you have any comments, I would enjoy hearing from you at If you enjoy my writing and would like additional samples, go to Amazon - Think Straight. Talk Straight. and pick up my book – Think Straight. Talk Straight.