What a tricky time we are living in.
Over the last few weeks I have heard a few stories about relationships being ruined over disagreements. One was a family who didn’t agree over political issues related to COVID-19, ending in a family member moving out. Another involved co-workers who disagreed to the point of a ruined friendship about manners related to fundamental idealism. The arguments were heated on one level or another with the outcomes being relationships damaged or lost for good.
This had me wondering about what is the best way to move through this time of great debate in good grace.
I have found that through this time of COVID-19, people are very protective of their belief systems, and to challenge them is to offend them. In the article, “How to disagree productively,” author Grant Freeland notes, “One of the great problems in these hyper-sensitive times is that everyone seems to take everything personally. If I disagree with you, you assume I’m declaring war on you.” And it seems that the war of disagreement is all around us. On social media, the news, in homes, at jobs, in schools … you just can’t escape it.
Julia Dhar has an incredible TedTalk entitled “How to Disagree Productively and Find Common Ground” in which she outlines four ideas on how to make the concept of productive disagreement a reality.
First, separate the idea from the person. The idea here is to “debate the actual issue, not the person.” We need to be able to “separate ideas from identity, and be genuinely open to persuasion.” But to do that, we would need to be able to listen to others points of view, and for some, that is the hardest thing. It is easier to pick people apart if their views differ from ours, and some people have the mindset that their truth is the only truth out there, and what they have to say needs to be said, regardless of the outcome to our relationships. This ideology will only further isolate people and break down the fabric that holds our society together.
Second, find the sliver of common ground and invite others to it. Instead of focusing on where you disagree, find the topics you have commonality on which can build up your relationship. If COVID-19 management is a topic you know you and Uncle Bob don’t agree on, but you both have enjoyed being able to be home more during this time, then consciously shift your conversation when it starts to go south. For me, we have a pretty diverse group of friends so we have a rule in our house when we have guests over that we don’t talk about politics or religion over dinner. It’s a good rule and makes for less awkward or angry conversations.
Third, practice the skill of “intellectual humility.” Intellectual humility is the ability to be open to and evaluate a broad range of evidence. It is the idea of being able to openly attach yourself to opposing ideas and then having the ability to defend those ideas. Perhaps this will help us to see differing points of view or other ideas. If we are truly humble in this area, we could ask another person, “What made you change your mind on this and why?” Then we could sit back and really listen without waiting to jump in about how their perspective is wrong and to enforce the idea of how “woke” you are. Just listen and have a conversation. See what happens.
Fourth, pre-commit to the possibility of being wrong. Guess what? You might be wrong about things sometimes. I know I’m wrong about things a lot of the time. But I have also learned that it doesn’t do any good for me to point out others’ wrongs, or what I perceive as wrong, because I have learned that I value people over opinions. If you can have actual conversations about issues without personalizing them, you may actually change your point of view. Ms. Dahr notes, “Once we’re able to start thinking and talking about what it would take to change our minds, we naturally begin to wonder why we were so stuck on our original viewpoints in the first place.”
During this time of high stress, we are all looking for peaceful resolution. Ronald Reagan said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” Author Max Lucado summed it up beautifully: “Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” I hope that we can make strides to move away from the combat in the war of disagreement, and move closer to understanding and embracing others’ points of view. After all, we are all in this together.
Merilee Larsen is a doctor of public health and an assistant professor in Utah Valley University’s Public and Community Health department.