A few days ago, I had a conversation with someone who said a few things that really bothered me. Actually, “bothered” is too kind a descriptor, because this was the kind of deep-in-your-bones frustration and anger that comes when someone says something that stands in direct contradiction to values you deeply hold. I couldn’t believe that this person believed the words they were saying; and in my frustration, I hardly knew how to respond.
Hours later, I was still trying to process this interaction. It got me thinking about the question we face again and again in life, and especially in the field of conflict resolution:
How do we engage well—with integrity, empathy, and kindness—with people we disagree with?
Here are a few guidelines I’ve learned and try to keep in mind.
Remember our shared humanity
The single most important thing we need to remember when engaging with people who disagree with us is the principle of our shared humanity. Each person has inherent value and dignity, regardless of their opinions or beliefs. Each person has a story—a lived experience known fully only to them—that shapes their perspectives, beliefs, and opinions. They matter—full stop.
And, even when difficult, no opinion of theirs, however offensive or contradictory to your own, makes them less worthy of belonging, kindness, and respect.
Avoid buying into “us vs. them”
Often in the heat of conflict, we can dehumanize the “other” with labels, caricatures, or generalizations. We assume the best in our own position and the worst in theirs. We label the other person, often too quickly, and then push everything they say into the category of that label.
Engaging with conflict in a healthy and collaborative way requires that we be willing to most past this dehumanizing dichotomy. In fact, the vast majority (if not all) of large-scale conflict is born out of a systemic practice of pitting one label against another. Political affiliations, gender labels, ethnic characteristics, personality traits, religious convictions, socioeconomic categories, or national identities are important distinctions, but are not valuable classifications when we no longer see and hear the person speaking.
You can disagree with someone and still engage with them—and their position—with integrity. Doing so requires the diligence to not buy into the adversarial idea of “you vs. them” and requires a diligent commitment to seeking out common interests, rather than positions.
Seek to understand
How often do we listen to truly listen? Realistically, we usually listen with the intent to respond and argue for our own position, rather than the intent to understand. When we don’t listen fully, we miss an opportunity to learn from the person we are in conversation or conflict with. Most opinions are the direct result of lived experience—whether from family upbringing, culture, education, etc. Seeking to understand the root motivations and values behind opposing positions helps us to find common interests.
In seeking to understand, it’s vital that we learn to practice empathy. Honour the experiences and narratives of the other person (or people group). Ask with the intent to learn, not to judge. This honours the dignity and humanity of that person and takes steps toward deeper understanding.
One of the biggest insights I’ve learned in my career/education in conflict resolution is that you can respect a person without agreeing with them. Respect is less about endorsing their ideas (in fact, you don’t have to endorse their ideas at all), and more about the way in which you engage with the discussion about their ideas.
Engaging in disagreement well requires focus and effort. Stay calm. Pay attention to your body language and your tone. Breathe. Check your assumptions. Don’t name-call or use demeaning humour.
One of my best friends is a grade three teacher. She has a poster on her classroom wall that reads: “Of all the things you can choose to be, choose to be kind.” We would do well to remember this advice.
Remember our shared humanity
This one is so important, it needs to be said twice.
We do not have to agree on everything—in fact, we never will. The beauty of a diverse civil society and diverse workplaces—with a multitude of cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, political, religious, and personality differences—is that we have an opportunity to learn from one another. We have an opportunity, despite our differences, to pursue the common good together. And we have the opportunity to grow and learn and have our own perspectives widened and expanded.
The beauty of our differences is greater than the challenges they present. But we can only engage well if we are willing to listen, to empathize, and to respect—truly respect—the other.