Another holiday dinner at my Aunt Ellen’s and Uncle Ben’s. As they passed the pumpkin pie, my uncle began lecturing on politics, making sweeping generalizations, lashing out at “those people.” But I’d been away at college and some of “those people” were now my friends. I paused anxiously, took a deep breath, then said, “I disagree.” Silence. Frozen stares. Then a nervous apology from my mother. “She didn’t mean it, Ben.” But I did.
Years later, I ask myself, “Why can’t we disagree?” In college, my friends and I stayed up for hours discussing politics and religion, arguing passionately about our ideas, listening, explaining, sifting through different options, growing closer, bonded by our quest for understanding. Yet too often today, in families, workplaces, communities, and our nation’s capitol, points of disagreement lead to polarization, building walls of mistrust, not bridges of greater understanding. Just last week when I disagreed with a college administrator, some of my colleagues acted as though I’d done something incredibly rude.
Why can’t we disagree? Disagreement doesn’t make one person right and the other wrong, just different. We’re all individuals, bound to disagree about some things—our beliefs, ideas, politics, taste in food, preferences in music, sports teams, and more. Pretending we agree when we don’t only builds walls. If we cannot honestly disagree, how can we know and understand each other?
Dealing with disagreement and discrepancies may make us uncomfortable, but psychologists tell us that’s how we learn and grow. Leaders in conflict resolution from Carl Rogers to Dudley Weeks have upheld honest self-disclosure and active listening as the foundation for building trust, mutual respect, and cooperation—qualities vitally needed in our world today (Rogers, 1961; Weeks, 1994).
How about you? Can you share your differences with the people around you while remaining respectful and present to them? This is my challenge to myself this holiday season and my resolution for the new year.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On Becoming a Person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. For more information on the Person-Centered approach and the Carl Rogers Peace Project, see Center for Studies of the Person, http://www.centerfortheperson.org/
Weeks, D. (1994). The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.
Follow Diane on Twitter: Diane Dreher (@dianedreher) on Twitter