So, you’re a vegetarian? Great. You go to the gym every day? Wonderful. You lost 14 pounds on your newfangled diet? I’m happy for you. You’re voting for the Democratic (Republican or Independent) candidate? Super. You’re a devoted person of faith? Good for you. Now, do you want my opinion?
It’s wonderful that you’ve assumed such a healthy lifestyle; that you’re so passionate about your beliefs and committed to your causes; and that you want to raise your kids just like your parents raised you.
But . . .
But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with you. Believe me, I’m not trying to pass judgment; quite to the contrary. Unlike multiple-choice tests, in life there may be two right answers to the same question. And I know what’s right for me. I have strong beliefs and am passionate about my values too.
I don’t mind if you ask me to follow your lead every once in a while, but I’m afraid that you’re misconstruing my silence (a.k.a. “No, I don’t happen to agree with you”) for an answer. And you’re making me feel uncomfortable. So, you’re welcome to your own opinion, but PLEASE let me be me.
My Opinion Or the Highway
On a small scale, forcing your opinions upon others can lead to arguments and damaged relationships. It can pit friend against friend, create strife among family members, generate tension in the workplace, and cause gridlock in government. On a larger scale, forcing one’s values on others can lead to war.
The fact remains that if someone chooses to live a certain way, and it doesn’t infringe on anyone’s freedom, it’s their choice to make. With that in mind, a true friend is one who respects a friend for who he is, rather than who he wants him to be. It’s important to be respectful of other people’s ways of life and traditions –– even if you’re not in complete agreement.
Sometimes, however, it’s not that simple –– especially when one’s beliefs and values encroach on another’s freedom. In fact, some issues today are responsible for the polarization that is paralyzing our country’s political process. Rather than striving to seek compromise, it seems that the new standard of discourse is “My Way Or the Highway.” This is a shortsighted and ultimately destructive attitude that is a “lose-lose” for everyone. We can’t expect others to abandon their values any more than we would forsake our own.
The fact is, we live in a world that’s getting smaller every day. It’s important to be tolerant of other people’s cultures and values, recognizing that no one has the right to force his way of life on anyone else.
Building Bridges . . .
This does not mean that people shouldn’t speak out for their beliefs. This process, however, must be civil and respectful of others’ views. In fact, the manner we use to air our differences of opinion is the signal we send to others about our willingness to build bridges of trust. If we view every issue as a “take no prisoners” battle, or use underhanded (or dishonest) means to influence opinions, the outcome is likely to be ugly. No bridges will be built, and any existing structures of understanding that link us will be quickly demolished, On the other hand, if we’re sensitive to other people’s views and avoid forcing our opinions, then we’re far more likely to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Furthermore, this process will enable us to build a trusting relationship going forward rather than a process that is poisoned from the outset.
Here are some considerations to promote an amicable debate:
- When a disagreement arises, all discussion should focus on the merits of each position, without denigration of others. There’s no need to either disparage anyone or resort to personal attacks.
Nothing but the facts
- Timely and accurate information is an important ingredient of successful debate. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
- Does everyone view the issue from the same perspective? Is everyone taking the same short- or long-term perspective? Does the issue affect everyone the same way?
- Is everyone being fair and objective? Are people letting their personal biases influence their positions? Are unstated factors clouding their judgment? Is their bias based on uninformed or outdated thinking?
- Is someone trying to influence the decision? Do they have a separate agenda or a vested interest in the outcome?
- Are any of the negotiators in it just to be “spoilers” with no real stake in the outcome, except to ensure that no consensus is reached?
The best strategy — WIN-WIN
- Many “battles” don’t have winners and losers –– there are just losers. Don’t look for ways to back an opponent into a corner. Instead, find ways to let each side save face. You gain nothing by making others look bad.
- Take the high ground. Remain open-minded. Look for common ground. Identify ways to compromise and find opportunities where everyone wins.
- Now hear this: Is everyone really hearing what the others are saying? Communication is a two-way street. It requires more than talking. Remember, there’s a difference between listening and hearing.
- Although it may take longer, it’s better to achieve buy-in than to be overpowering in order to achieve a short-term gain. Buy-in is best achieved with expertise, integrity, charisma, and respect rather than with authority and position.
- Remember, if you win the battle (and ruin a relationship), what have you gained?
- Trust takes a long time to develop, but can be destroyed in seconds.
Making the case
- It is important to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to find the merit in each other’s arguments.
- Presenting both sides of an argument helps you to be objective and fair.
- Repeating something over and over doesn’t make it true.
- Just because more people hold a particular view doesn’t make it right.
- Raising your voice doesn’t make an argument more convincing.
- Just because a person is silent doesn’t mean that person doesn’t have a message to convey.
- When you distort the truth, you weaken your credibility.
- Please don’t dance in the end zone when you score points. It’ll only damage the process going forward.
Be Prepared to Heal Thyself
There are a lot of good and decent people in this world who have much in common. They wake up every morning as proud parents and spouses. They build great businesses, give back to their communities, and assist those in need. They want to lead purposeful lives, provide for their families, and assure better lives for their children. It’s important to build relationships on what unites us, not fight over what divides us. We should abandon the hateful rhetoric, expose our counterfeit leaders, desert our malicious role models, and reject the disgusting greed and envy that pits us against one another.
I long for a day when our leaders bring us together rather than divide us; when people strive to better themselves rather than trying to change others; when fairness and tolerance replace weapons disguised as words; when we measure success, not by what people accumulate in life, but by what they’re able to give to others; when “the world revolves around me” gives way to being a responsible member of the “world community.” And when “win-win,” long-term relationships become the new definition of success, rather than winning at all costs.
Before we can make this a reality, keep in mind the wisdom of Bill Bluestein, who said, “Before you try to change others, remember how hard it is to change yourself.” But that’s my opinion.