Accepting Disagreement

I think the art of disagreement is dead or at least dying and I am partly to blame. More importantly, I think this lost art will ultimately cause us to be less authentic and thus, less comfortable with ourselves as individuals.

How do you feel when someone disagrees with you? Do you take it personally? Are you offended? Do you make up a story about what that individual is actually saying about you? I have a recent experience to share that highlights my reaction to receiving a contrary opinion and what I learned from it. Here is the story.

Recently, I have been spending a considerable amount of time, money and effort developing a Vision and Strategic plan for one of my clients. As I was putting the finishing touches on this document, another individual whom I work with asked about the basic concept or premise that the plan was based on. I enthusiastically shared what it was and why I was so excited about it.

After hearing me out, he looked at me and said, "Gord, I am not much for political correctness, but in my opinion and based on what you have told me, I would give that idea a 4 out of 10 at best."

To my credit, I immediately grabbed hold of my coach training (and some would say, emotional maturity), and asked him to tell me more about his concerns and how he reached his assessment. That was using my outside voice.

As for what was going on in the inside - my whole body was literally convulsing with emotional turmoil. How dare he? Who was he anyway, and what does he know? Oh my God I am flailing and failing! Nah - he is an idiot - short sighted. Mean... Yeah he's mean as well as strategically incompetent. But what if he is right? To say I felt like a recently caught trout on a hot dock gives you some idea of what was going on for me on the inside.

So what exactly happened here? Was it his intention to put me down? To make me feel miserable? To condemn my work and my competence? Hardly. At that moment, I was the one condemning him while in truth he was demonstrating three very important and specific things.

The first of these was candor. He was candid. He didn't placate me, or waffle or give me his thoughts in some sort of "love bunny" sandwich. The second of these was care. He actually cared enough about what I was doing to form an opinion and share it with me. And thirdly, he was respectful. Huh? Sure... he respected me enough to offer his opinion, knowing that it was different than my own! That demonstrates both courage and a lot of respect.

How often do you do this? I know I could do it more...because sometimes I take the easy route and just nod benignly while having a very contrary opinion that I don't share. And what keeps me from sharing is a hidden (but obviously real), disrespect for the person I am engaged with. Clearly, what keeps me from being honest is my (wrongful) belief that "they" can't handle my truth. How is that for a painful learning experience?

Now, I don't live in a world full of lolly-pops and sunshine and I freely admit that there is evidence to support both sides of the respect equation. Often when I do provide my opinion, it is honoured - not necessarily adopted or accepted but at least heard. Other times, my "disrespect" is justified and after sharing my opinion with honourable intentions, I am quickly and publicly condemned, vilified or ostracized. It's not hard to sit on your opinions after being on the receiving end of that sort of reaction - trust me.

The bottom line is for me is that we as a society do not seem to handle dissenting opinion very well at all and this caused me to be curious about why this may be so.

I think there are two things at play here. One is our "need" to be right or "validated". The second is our need to belong. When someone presents us with a contrary opinion (with honourable intention), we often get defensive and take their opinion as being a slight against us personally, e.g. our judgment, sagacity, competence or rationality is being questioned. We feel "wrong" and therefore need to justify ourselves (or worse, we condemn the source, e.g. "What does he know...?") It can be helpful to see this within the context of a silly example.

Me:Blue is my favorite colour. I love blue. I think it is great. You: I prefer red. Me: What's wrong with blue you twerp? You think my taste in colour is weird. You must be colour blind as well as stupid.

The other need - that of belonging, encourages us to "fit in" and any contrary opinion automatically sets us apart from the "group". For example, I dislike Facebook. I am just not that interested in what it has to offer. However, my need to fit in with the twenty-seven billion people who are passionate users of Facebook has encouraged me to be less opinionated on the topic. I now tend to say that I am not a "big Facebook user" or that I am still trying to "figure Facebook out". This obvious lack of candour is in direct support of my need to fit in or at least not feel left out. (Actually it may well be a fear driven need not to be pummeled by Facebook fanatics...) :)

So - what can we do to raise the art of being opinionated and sharing those opinions without causing a war? Here are my thoughts: First of all, I think we need to see that sharing one's honest opinion is a sign of respect and care. Secondly, we need to develop the confidence to hear opinions that are different from our own and not take them personally. It is the subject being debated, not the person. Thirdly, it is important to acknowledge that any dissenting opinion is a gift because it allows us to see a world and a reality beyond that formed by our own blind passion or limited by our personal experience.

We can continue to work on our emotional maturity and emotional intelligence so that the dialog is not hijacked by outbursts or acts of emotional terrorism.

We can see dissension as an invitation to explore, debate and discover rather than as a threat.

Unfortunately, none of these things are easy to do when your buttons are being pushed or your internal gremlin or saboteur voice takes over. I think it is something that does come with practice so - my personal growth opportunity in the months ahead is to be more controversial, opinionated and direct. Sounds like fun eh? I hope you'll join me...from a place of mutual respect, of course!


Thanks for reading this issue of Perspectives and please feel free to forward it to anyone you feel might be interested.

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Cheers, Gord