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Don't Be Rude

There are better ways to disagree.

Key points

  • Conflict is uncomfortable, but it can also help us grow and connect.
  • Rude behavior alters how we work, what we buy, and our health.
  • In disagreement, find common ground by giving up the need to win, listening well, and acting compassionately.
Jessica da rosa/Unsplash
Jessica da rosa/Unsplash

I clicked on a news story, and a short clip showed one group of moms shouting over another group at a city council meeting. Some want books banned from the school library. Others don’t. Everybody was yelling.

It’s an important issue, but I stopped listening. I'm pretty sure others did too. Nothing got done.

I have strong opinions. I have protested, advocated, donated, and voted in support of the things I believe in. But shouting others down is more likely to turn people off than change their minds.

Open to the Idea

Some of the most powerful things I’ve learned have come from people who think differently than I do. We argued. Disagreed. And we’ve listened and learned from each other. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s always important. If the process doesn't teach me about the other person, or the issue at hand, I learn something about myself.

Learning to disagree

We tend to have longer, more serious arguments with the people we care most about–because we are invested in them. We care what they think and what happens to them. It's hard to be in a relationship with someone who diverges significantly from some of the ideas we hold close. That can be startling and leave us feeling anxious or uncertain.

We may end up doubting ourselves or them. Questioning the relationship. And often, I feel irritated and try to convince my husband to think more like me, which isn't fair either. The conflict is uncomfortable. When we handle it well, those disagreements can be an opportunity for growth and connection. When we don't, well, that only amps up the tension.

The spread of incivility

Incivility or rudeness is threading through society. It shows up at home, in the workplace, on social media, on the roads, and even in some presidential administrations.

At work, rude employees may contribute to lower productivity and retention, more used sick days, and greater stress and anxiety. And research shows that most people have experienced a level of incivility at work that has changed how they feel about their jobs.

This tension carries over to other areas, too. Rudeness is contagious. A tense day at the office heightens our stress and conflict at home, how we respond to other drivers, treat service personnel, and how we communicate with those we meet.

Even watching someone else act rudely leaves us feeling stressed, defeated, and likely to underperform. Rude behavior turns everyone off and makes it less likely we will reach out, help others, or do business at the location where the rude behavior occurred. When a couple is arguing or putting each other down at home, that impacts how the children learn and feel.

No matter where we are, we do not like seeing others mistreated. Rude behavior turns people off. But we can model a different way of disagreeing so we can ease the incivility.

Better ways to disagree

Here are some suggestions that can take the heat out of disagreements and help us learn from each other, from Greater Good and the Constructive Dialogue Institute experts, and others.

  • Let go of winning. This can damage relationships and shut down new ideas. Instead, be open, curious, and kind. Go into a conversation with a desire to learn and listen.
  • Ask questions to learn, not to influence. I got this wrong when my daughter and I argued over her views on a school-related issue. Her mindset surprised me, and I said, “How could you even think that?” A better question would have been, “Huh, that’s interesting. Can you explain why you are thinking along those lines?” That kind of question would have kept the conversation going, and I could have learned more and connected more deeply with our daughter.
  • Listen well. I'm working on listening better, asking constructive questions, and waiting for answers. Nothing positive happens when we interrupt, talk over, or even shout at each other. And if you are looking to be persuasive, shouting others down won't do it. It just makes the situation more stressful and divisive, laying the groundwork for even more incivility.
  • Know when to let it go. Often there will be no agreement. No resolution. Even in a marriage or intimate partnership, when you are dedicated to working through life's challenges, it's likely you'll find the same themes (irritants?) reemerging, and it's unlikely a beleaguered discussion or civil conversation is going to make any difference at all no matter how long it lasts. Share your thoughts, and listen to the other. Move on.
  • Act with compassion. Amid the high point of the pandemic, we stayed isolated and got vaccinated as soon as possible. Yet some friends made different choices. I didn’t agree or understand. But these are wise and thoughtful people who were considering all the options just like we were. I know how hard that time was for us. I assumed it was hard for them too. So, instead of belittling or judging, we chose not to see friends who weren't vaccinated, but we didn't ignore or harangue. We just explained our decision and offered compassion and understanding that their choices must have been difficult too. The friendship stayed intact.
  • Find a common point. No part of me supports banning books. But I love my kid, and there are a whole lot of things I’ve done to keep her safe, shield her from violence, and help her grow into a healthy and happy woman. I can only assume these parents, who take a different position on book bans and other issues, love their kids too. Remembering what we have in common makes it easier to disagree without treating each other poorly.

Will we ever agree on the book-banning issue? Doubtful, but we can learn much from others when we listen instead of shouting over the top. In the heat of the moment, it isn't always easy to do these things, but right now, we can be a calm presence, lead with compassion, and refuse flat-out to extend the spread of incivility. Right now, we can choose to be civil rather than rude even when we disagree.

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