Are you with me or against me? In life, we’re all essentially in the same boat — as humans, as Americans. Are we willing and able to keep our boat afloat? What will it look like — balance, focus, leaning in, pulling together? Or, will we resist, struggle and capsize?
Why should we bother engaging with others who have views, beliefs, values and concerns in opposition to our own? Probably because my side/your side battles will prevent us from growing and thriving. All-or-nothing, black/white, right/wrong positions are extreme and most of life occurs in the gray zones. In fact, we need each other’s ideas and passion to resolve important issues, accomplish goals and effect change, especially in the realm of important social and political issues that impact us all.
So, how can we learn to overcome our resistance to listening to, and actually hearing, what others have to say? Here are a few suggestions:
Assess The Situation
We cannot solve problems or accomplish constructive change if we don’t understand the current situation. In order to do this, we need to obtain accurate information and to acknowledge that creative problem solving involves investigating multiple options.
Start by knowing that everyone thinks they are right, and everyone has their own reasons for their beliefs and behaviors. Telling someone that s/he is wrong and, that you are right is not helpful. Dismiss your self-righteous attitude, be humble for a moment, and seek first to understand the other person’s reasoning before you attack, judge or disagree.
Many politically active people in our country today believe that they are motivated by love and their opponents are motivated by hate. Imagine that your ideology is based on benevolence —you want to help people. Do you truly believe that the other side’s positions are intended to be malicious or destructive? This is common in world conflict — Palestinians and Israelis, Republicans and Democrats, for example.
Separate The Person From The Situation
One of the first rules for dealing with a difficult situation is to separate the person from their words and actions. A decent and intelligent person may hold ideas or beliefs with which we disagree. This does not make them evil or stupid. It means they have a different opinion. Name-calling, denigration and vilification of others is ignorant, rude and cruel. Our society cannot progress when this type of stereotyping, cynicism and judgment prevails and predominates.
Fear Rears Its Ugly Head
Uncertainty and volatility surrounding disagreement and conflict induces fear which causes our defensive behavior patterns to take over: fight (move against others), flight (move away, avoid) or freeze (shut down). This instinctive stimulus occurs so quickly it tends to preempt rational thinking and choice responses. And, when we are afraid, we distance ourselves from others, precluding engagement or cooperation.
What’s In It For Me?
Again, why bother to reach across the aisle, to have a difficult conversation? First, ask yourself, what’s in it for me — to understand, to gain information or insight, to participate in a solution, to show respect for another perspective, to give respect to another person, to “have a vote?” Nobody has all the answers, and collaboration and partnership can unleash creativity and possibilities.
I have several close friends who hold very divergent views from mine on important social and political issues. So, I ask myself, “Why does this smart person seem to believe such a dumb or ridiculous thing?” Since I hold each of them in high regard, I want to understand their perspectives and reasoning. This type of discourse promotes and solidifies respect, trust and lasting relationships.
What about you? I encourage you to be ready, willing and able to overcome your resistance, one conversation or one interaction at a time.
A Search for Common Ground
Part Three: Constructive Conversations will provide specific steps for having conversations instead of adversarial debates by acknowledging and understanding differences in order to discover common ground.