I feel like our current discussions of politics and social issues are so divisive. I struggle to engage with them and frankly, I disagree with many of them—even when they are the opinions of my friends, family, and neighbors. It’s hard for me to understand how people can have the opinions they have. And I honestly struggle to respect some of their perspectives. Yet, it’s important to have respect for those we have relationships with. So, how can I respect someone who’s opinions seem hard to respect? How can I engage in these kinds of conversations when I know I disagree so vehemently?
This is a challenge we all experience—likely on a daily basis. We are constantly exposed to other people’s behavior or ideas we completely disagree with and often disapprove of. However, it is important to find a sense of Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose in those conversations and interactions. How do we do that when we feel so completely different from the other person and his or her opinions or perspectives? Let me share an experience that helped me see this concept in a new light.
A few years ago, I was taking a trip across the country. I boarded the airplane and settled in my seat. A few minutes later, an older gentleman boarded. He seemed to take quite a bit of time to get settled into his space. He stopped in the middle of the aisle to do a number of things: take off his jacket, pull items from his suitcase, talk to his grandsons standing behind him in the aisle, and then get out toys for them. Meanwhile, the line of passengers behind him piled up. An important point: I am, admittedly, judgmental of people who aren’t self-aware when they travel. It’s unfair and I promise I’m working on it.
In that moment, I was judging him a little harshly. My thoughts sounded something like this: “I can’t believe he’s not being more self-aware. There are more than a hundred passengers still waiting to board and he is just taking his time in the aisle while others wait behind him. He should have figured a lot of this out before he boarded. His behavior is not very respectful to the other people trying to board the airplane. I would never do that. I would have taken care of this stuff long before I got on the plane.”
As he finished his packing, he turned around and I could see the front of his shirt—it was the logo of my alma mater. Immediately, my thoughts shifted. I started to think: “Wow, I bet he’s pretty exhausted traveling with little kids. I have little kids and I know it’s not easy. I wonder how many flights they’ve been on previous to this one? I bet he’s stressed out trying to manage trying to keep those little kids happy and entertained on these flights. He’s a bit older and I bet these young kids are probably tiring the poor guy out.”
I didn’t reflect too much on my mental shift until long after we had landed. But, when I finally realized what I had done, I learned a valuable lesson. When we believe someone’s behavior or opinion is hard to respect, we tend to look for all the reasons that person is different from us. We do this to justify our disrespect for his or her behavior or opinion. We might even take it a step further and continue to emphasize or seek out differences to justify our disrespect for him or her. This mindset gives us justification to engage in all sorts of bad behavior: ignoring a concern, labeling the other person, or even attacking them and their ideas. While this “emphasize differences for justification” approach is easy and convenient, it is also less productive and not based in truth. The way we learn to have crucial conversations with people who have beliefs or behavior we don’t respect is by doing the opposite—look for commonality. Rather than focusing on or emphasizing differences, search for and seize upon any bit of commonality you may share.
Does this mean you have to agree with the other person? No. Does this mean you have to ignore someone’s potentially bad behavior? No. If there is a concern, you should address it. But if your goal is dialogue and meaningful influence, you’ll only achieve those when the relationship and the conversation is built on commonality.
I have yet to see someone in a fiery discussion suddenly change his perspective because of how disrespectful and clever the other party was; not only do people not change, they stop listening. And as I learned on that flight, sometimes the common ground can be small or trivial. When you look for similarities, you have the opportunity to see the other person differently and then engage with him or her differently. You see others a little bit more like you see yourself—normal, reasonable, rational people with opinions, ideas, and flaws.
Incidentally, if I had been better at looking for commonality when I initially started to judge the man on the flight, I might have actually done something productive like help him get his bags into the overhead compartment. My own disrespect made me less of the kind and caring person I’d like to be. The person I “tell myself” I really am.
I feel we as a society are in dire need to engage this principle more in our lives, our homes, our political and social discourse, and our organizations. I often see discussion on social issues or policy on social media where people completely dismiss another person’s perspectives (as different as they may be). They use cutting names and labels to make the other side not only seem different—but almost evil. This approach allows them to dismiss others’ ideas without blinking an eye and often feel not only justified, but proud. So what’s the bottom line? Mutual purpose and commonality can be the HERO in a moment of disrespect and difference.
Let me know in the comments what you think about this idea. Have you tried this approach, and if so, how has it helped?
I look forward to hearing from you,
Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.