Agree to Disagree Agreeably

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi

 There have been a number of reports over the past two years of political disagreements, especially over the 2016 presidential election, driving a wedge between friends and family members. A radio interview of a father and son revealed their divide. An on-air TV interview highlighted the long-term alienation of a mother and daughter over politics. A poll taken a few months after the election revealed serious rifts between married couples as well as between parents and their offspring; on the other hand, the poll illustrated how friendships have sprung up among those who are like-minded politically.

Becoming estranged from one’s family, breaking up a marriage or ending a friendship over politics is an unhappy — but avoidable — outcome. If an argument over politics surfaces deep-seeded problems to be resolved, that’s one thing; but if the cause of the rift is due solely to arguing over politics the parties involved should strive to fix it. And they can do so by arguing more, not less! Take a look at this article that features a video of three sets of parents and their children discussing their political views.

Disagreement in America is good. We should celebrate our First Amendment rights by discussing, debating and arguing the issues and policies, but doing so with respect for each other’s opinions, even if emotionally we want to bite someone’s nose! Violence — verbal or physical — never solved anything for the better. By discussing and debating we can advance our positions on issues while at the same time learning from others. Most importantly, we should try to discover why those with differing positions feel the way they do about a variety of issues. It’s just such discussions and lively debates that can bring about understanding, if not total agreement.

As an etiquette consultant and trainer, I advise my clients and students to avoid discussing politics or religion at work, over a business meal (including interview lunches) or at social functions. The exceptions include situations in which you are among like-minded individuals or at a function where the express purpose is to discuss politics or religious matters. In one’s private life, it’s fine to discuss both topics provided you keep in mind etiquette, empathy and ethics in doing so.

When I was a twenty-something I was passionate about a particular presidential candidate, and was a super volunteer for his campaign. I was sure that my mother also supported him because we were members of the same political party. It wasn’t until after the election that my mom came clean about her voting for — if not entirely supporting the positions of — the opposing candidate, who won the election. I was devastated, and pretty upset with her. But after I calmed down we talked about it and I discovered her reasons, which helped illuminate for me her thinking on a number of issues involved in that particular election. Over the years we discussed many other issues, some we agreed on and some we didn’t. At no time did we become estranged over politics, although we had some lively discussions!

My daughter and I generally agree on politics and social issues, but there are times when we do not see eye-to-eye completely on topics about which we each feel passionately. I am grateful, therefore, that we make an effort to respect each other’s opinions and actually enjoy our (ahem) conversations. To be clear, we have had some serious disagreements, but we’ve always ended on a positive note — if not immediately, then eventually. I have learned a lot from listening to and discussing my daughter’s perspectives on issues, and believe she has benefitted from hearing my views. Certainly the difference in our generations plays a role in some disagreements, but we’ve always been able to bridge that gap by listening to each other.

One thing that is deeply disturbing about our current environment is the level of vitriol. On social media, especially, there is an overwhelming number of personal attacks and name-calling. That type of behavior has no place in a productive discussion or debate among reasonable people, whether they know each other well or not at all. Getting heated up over an issue is fine; getting heated at someone is not. We should treat each other with consideration, understanding, and again, respect. Just think of how much further along we could get in fixing the world if we were kinder to and more patient with each other.

To that end, here is my formula for disagreeing agreeably about politics:

  • Listen – Listen to others’ points of view respectfully, and try to understand their underlying reasons.
  • Research – Do a deep dive to understand an issue thoroughly, without prejudice. It’s also essential to differentiate between “fake news” and news that is accurate and responsible.
  • Compromise – Explore areas on which you can agree in order to establish empathy and camaraderie.
  • Persuade – Try to convince others that your point of view has validity and seek to open their minds.
  • Accept – If you and your sparring opponent, whoever that is, cannot agree on everything — or anything for that matter — accept and respect that you are taking different positions and move on without rancor. Let others know that you respect their positions even though you disagree with them, and that you hope they will respect yours in return. Then find areas in which you do agree — puppies, popcorn, Dan Stevens, Frances McDormand, and so forth.

So if current political and social issues are placing a wedge between you and your friends or family, consider making the first move toward resolution and peace, especially as the holiday season is upon us. We should continue to fight for what we believe, but let’s not fight with our loved ones to the point of alienating them. Remember that wise saying of Confucius: “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” There should be room in any disagreement for a little bending.

Until next time,

Jeanne

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