When You Can’t Agree

By Scott Westerman
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“Friends become wiser together through a healthy clash of viewpoints.” ~Timothy Keller

We are a judgemental species, filled with division and prejudice. We are influenced by provocative sound bytes that are often inaccurate and oversimplify complex issues. Tightly held paradigms build walls that can blind us to opportunity. Fear of losing what we think we have keeps us silent when we should speak out.

In a political environment where victory may depend on pandering to extremism, intransigence is often the order of the day. In the walled gardens of social media were negativity multiplies at internet speed, we can be afraid to challenge an idea for fear of retribution.

And yet, it is only through conflict that change occurs. “Peace,” writes Dorothy Thompson, “is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict — alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.”

What can you do when you can’t agree?

Walk a mile in their shoes. – Understanding is built on experience. Compassion is rooted in knowing the backstory. Seek to understand. Listen with empathy. Spending time in another person’s world can put you both on common ground. That’s where progress begins.

Avoid provocative labels. – Words can enflame or enlighten. Imagine how you would feel if what you said was reflected back at you. Hateful speech can only breed hatred. It’s possible to be firm without flames.

Give a little. Get a little. – This is the essence of compromise. It may not always feel like the trade has been equal, but the habit will ultimately lead to an inhabitable middle ground.

Pick your battles. Pick your battlefield. – Not every hill is worth dying for and sometimes, timing is everything. Complex problems take time to solve. You won’t solve them all in your lifetime, but you can push the flywheel of change in their direction.

Find the real issue. – What we fight about sometimes has nothing to do with what we are seeking. “It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning,” notes Margaret Atwood in her book, Blind Assassin, “that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.” It’s often possible to win the battle and lose the war. Understand what’s really driving the conversation. Keep an eye on the ultimate outcome you seek and you will find the courage to work through the obstacles.

Most importantly, approach everything you do with an open heart. Author Bryant McGill believes, “Grace in conflict is a study in love.” Those who win by force seldom preserve their victory. History’s greatest people are driven by solicitude over ego and service over self.

Think of the big picture. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock gives us the secret of success in moments of conflict in Star Trek II – The Wrath of Kahn: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

I think that philosopher Jeremy Bentham may have said it best. “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.”