How Should We Think about Those Who Disagree with Us?
Last week, the US House Committee on Financial Services had a public hearing with Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook. What was supposed to be a discussion about Facebook’s Libra, a proposed cryptocurrency, became more of an opportunity for many lawmakers to bash Mark on what they saw as abuses of Facebook when it came to security, inequality in hiring practices, and social injustice. I watched some of it on C-SPAN and walked away with the impression that many lawmakers feel Mr. Zuckerberg is a selfish, greedy, careless leader and all-in-all terrible human being. I disagreed with their attitude and approach.
Many times when we disagree with others, we impugn their character, as these lawmakers did with Mr. Zuckerberg. When we face some people with whom we vehemently disagree, we think of them, and as a result, treat them as terrible human beings.
If I say Brexit, Trump, abortion, gun rights, or immigration, how do you feel about those who have opposing views than you? I, like most, have the tendency to think of others on the opposite side of the aisle as morally, ethically, or even mentally corrupt. This is not the way of healthy leaders.
Impugning someone’s character is a bad idea because it leads to incompatibility, and often an irreconcilable severing. Usually, both sides shut down and go on the attack when they feel the other side is looking at them with disdain and disgust. No human being wants to be looked down upon.
In this article, I want to present a method to help you identify these toxic thoughts so we might dislodge them, and replace them with another set of constructive, healthier thoughts about those with whom we strongly disagree.
One day when I was in college, I was studying in the Student Center. A person from a different culture was slurping loudly while eating soup. How inconsiderate, I thought. Two years ago, I was attending a ballet in Russia. The guy next to me yelled at me (in Russian) because I placed my foot on the wooden ledge in front of my seat. So rude, I thought. I recently attended a Board Meeting where the CEO ran the meeting. He acted as if he were the Chairman. I highly disagree with this from a governance standpoint. How short-sighted, I thought. If you can relate to any of my personal examples, you will recognize that feeling of hurling mental, or verbal, insults at the other side in moments when you see them as immoral, blind, or ethically vacuous. Just one look at social media, and you will see a fresh, live example of this rotten human habit.
[You may also enjoy reading this article: The Secret to Dealing with Conflict]
To treat this malady of human nature, I believe we must recognize these destructive thoughts and then ascribe to higher and healthier levels of thinking. Below are five levels of thinking (from worst to best) that we engage when we disagree with others.
Level One: Contempt—”They are worthless, defective, stupid, and immoral.“ Contempt is the act of seeing people who disagree with us, not as merely different or incorrect, but as worthless and defective. This is a level that we must dislodge from our thinking. When I look at someone as a rotten human being, and they look at me the same way, I can guarantee you that we are not likely to meet, converse, or try to explain our points of view. We shun the other side completely when we are looked down upon. As leaders, we must fight the urge to think of and express ourselves to others as if we are looking down on their character. In his recent book Love your Enemies, Arthur Brooks references research that reports that married couples who view each other with contempt are much more likely to end up in divorce. Remember not to think of others (whether your spouse, or a person you lead at work) as having low character.
Level 2: Ignorant—”Their character maybe okay, but they are blind, incorrect, and ignorant.“ This is the next level, which is only a little better, in which we see others we disagree with as ignorant. Their character and core, even their intention, is good, but we firmly believe that they are wrong because of their ignorance and unwillingness to listen and receive feedback.
Level 3: Different—”They are incorrect, and I don’t understand them. We are just different.” You may decide that you will choose to live and let live; that what you see may be incorrect, but since you don’t see what others see, you will choose to accept them. At this level, leaders do not attempt to understand. They choose to live and let live. Why is it that some cultures don’t shower regularly? How come some cultures don’t meet their neighbors? Each culture has a story, a reason. This is their current awareness. Before 1919, women did not vote in the US. Now we think this is abhorrent, but at that time it was culturally accepted by many. Leaders who operate at this level might respond to disagreements by saying, “I don’t understand it, but they can do their thing, and I can do mine.”
Level 4: Understandable—”I don’t agree, but I see how they can believe what they believe.” Now we are getting to a mature level. When you are presented with a drastically different point of view that may rub you the wrong way, and you are tempted to think horribly about the person presenting the idea, remember that your job as a leader is to try to understand and work toward seeing what the other person sees.
Level 5: Humble—”They may be right, and I may be wrong.” This is the level where leaders should ultimately aim to operate. Here, the thought is, what I see seems incorrect, but I could be wrong. Let me work hard to see what they see. We must view every person who has a different point of view than us as an invitation for us to reconsider what we believe and look at it with fresh eyes.
Some may argue that I am trying to make everything have a moral equivalency. I am not. What I am arguing is that when we operate at our highest levels of thinking, outlined on the scale above, we respect each other and give ourselves a much better chance to learn and change. Even when we choose to move forward with our current view, we will be positioned to truly empathize.
[You may also enjoy reading this article: How to Discuss—Not Argue—the Issues]
I was talking to a friend a few years ago, and she said, “Some things I am sure that I am sure that I am sure about.” We are sure about so many things, and our certainty often creates a tyranny in our mind toward others. As a leader, it is imperative that we win the battle in our own minds when we encounter anyone we disagree with if we are to honor others and become more effective leaders.