Most of us have been there. You’re scrolling through your Facebook feed when suddenly, there it is. It’s a post by a friend, I mean like a real friend; somebody you grew up with, or have shared a table with, maybe even someone you love. And this post, it’s something that you can’t ignore. You try to scroll on by, but you can’t unsee it.
So, what do you do when your friend says something that you disagree with strongly? What do you do when your friend makes sweeping statements about a group that you identify as? What do you do? It might be easiest to just unfriend them. And, I’m not denying there’s a place for that. But here’s the problem. Every time we write somebody off because they don’t agree with us, our group of friends gets more homogeneous.
In a world as dazzlingly diverse as ours it would be such a loss to creative thought if we all only listened to the people who agreed with us. In fact, there’s almost nothing more important than that we find ways to stay in conversation with the people who think differently than us. As a therapist I can tell you that when couples only ridicule each other and refuse to hear each other’s points of view, there’s very little I can do to help them.
Please understand, I’m not suggesting we should just “be nice” and “try to get along.” Authentic disagreement, even when it’s vehement, is more valuable than false, fatalistic acquiescence. As a friend (who I disagree with about a lot of things, but not about this) said recently to me, you can’t solve everything by being nice. It’s true. In fact, I recently finished reading a book about this very thing. Its called Not Nice: Stop People Pleasing, Staying Silent, & Feeling Guilty, and Start Speaking Up, Saying No, Asking Boldly, and Unapologetically Being Yourself by Aziz Gazipura. It’s book I recommend if this is something that you’re struggling with.
What I advocate instead of niceness is respectful discourse.
You can’t control how other people talk to you, nor should you try. But, if respectful discourse sounds like something that you also value, I invite you to read on. Take what’s useful here and adopt what makes sense to you. Or, leave it be and go on doing what you do. As for me, I’m passionate about respectful discourse. I will advocate for it with all my heart and soul. I believe that it’s one of the only things that can help us reconnect in a world where polarity is rapidly increasing.
One of the things I find helpful when on Facebook is to imagine that I’m at an Idea Salon. There are soapboxes everywhere. I figure, on my own page I am free to speak my truth. As long as I remember that I’m standing on a public soapbox and not everyone who hears my speech agrees with my ideas. This is not a place I choose to vent. I have private groups for that; people who I deeply trust to hear my pain and love me for the best in me regardless of how scrambled my words come out.
If you’re with me so far, here are 10 ideas for how to live the value of respectful discourse:
Find the AND. As in; “Corona Virus is serious and lots of people are and will be hurting from it, AND the economy tanking because we are all staying home is serious and lots of people are and will be hurting from that too.” Can we hold both?
Give Others the Gift of Feeling Heard. When I do counseling with couples, this is where we start. Until people feel really heard, they are likely to keep digging in their heels on their perspective because they are the only one in the conversation who can see it. We have to dare to cross the bridge and be the first to see the other point of view.
Don’t Confuse People with Ideas. You might really, truly, deeply, disagree with an idea. You might have a hard time understanding why anyone could even subscribe to an idea like that. As soon as you start using words like “idiot” “troll” “***hole” to describe the people who believe in that idea, you’ve forfeited your power to persuade. Resist the urge to define human beings categorically by their ideas. Human beings are really much more intricate than that.
Recognize the Good Intentions on the Other Side. People don’t hold tightly to their passionate ideas and values just to sabotage your ideas and values. They have them for a reason. And, I’m kind of an optimist. I believe that usually there’s a kernel of something that matters at the heart of even those things I deeply and profoundly disagree with.
Be Wary of Imperfect Metaphors. As human animals, we tell stories in metaphors. Its natural, and it helps us to communicate. The challenge with this is that sometimes we get so attached to our metaphor that we forget its only that- a metaphor. If I feel like I’m not getting through, I might compare the other person to a brick wall and then say “I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall. Why do I keep trying? I’m never going to get through to him.” This may express a truth about my frustration, but a person is a person, not a wall.
Don’t Compromise Your Values. Myers-Briggs personality types with an “F” in them (for feeling) are naturally predisposed to take the feelings of others into consideration when decision making. And, I suspect that’s part of why for lots of us the fear-based default response is to try being “nice.” We feeling sorts are likely to get uncomfortable when others are displaying intense emotion. If we don’t have a strong connection to our own values, we tend to crumble into making peace and trying to get along, instead of holding onto ourselves and what matters most to us.
Be Willing to Change Your Beliefs if the Evidence Warrants it. But, remember that you never have all of someone else’s evidence. You don’t. You get to see your own standpoint, and I hope you stand up tall in it. You can’t see everything that influences my standpoint, and I can’t see everything that influences yours. This is where I think a leap of trusting in humanity is called for. Hold your own with all your heart and soul. Trust others to their own beliefs.
When you Make Choices, Choose with Your Values. Honor your feelings. Feel your feelings. Write about them. Talk to friends about them. Choose with your values.
Choose to See the Best in Others. This is a little different from #4. The idea with this one is to find and amplify the things you love about the other person that have nothing to do with the thing you disagree about.
Finally, Do LOTS of Self-Soothing. This is a requirement, at least for me. Make a list of your personal favorite self-soothing options (the ones that are enlivening and healthy) and engage in them liberally. Take walks at sunset. Really feel the water on your shoulders when you shower. Boil water and make tea. Cry when you need to. Spend time with the people who are easy to agree with and who “get you”. Wake up early in the morning, find a patch of sunshine, write your heart out.
If these ideas have been useful to you, I’d love to hear about it. How do you engage in mutually respectful dialog? Oh- and here’s some resources I found while I was researching to write this article that might be helpful:
The Flip Side– a newsletter that presents the news in two columns; a blue one and a red one. Neutralizes drama. Draws on the best ideas from both sides of the aisle.
Not Nice: Stop People Pleasing, Staying Silent, & Feeling Guilty, and Start Speaking Up, Saying No, Asking Boldly, and Unapologetically Being Yourself by Aziz Gazipura. This is really helpful for us Feeling types who have a hard time of it when the conversations get intense.
And, here’s a Civil Discourse Resource Guide, put out by the University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia College. There are lots of other links on this page that I haven’t had a chance to research, but they look like they might be helpful.
Finally, I have found some of the ideas in this book Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships by David Schnarch, PhD, useful in describing the importance of respectful discourse in the context of an intimate relationship.
Thanks for reading!
Katie Baptist, LCSW