Recent and some not-so-recent events have highlighted the many ways we have found to divide us. This is challenging enough for the community-at-large, but what about when this division happens within our closest relationships? How do we navigate different beliefs, values and opinions with compassion and respect for our significant others, parents, siblings or close friends?
As humans, we have a tendency to dig in and double down on our positions, often moving further and further away from what we actually believe and from any chance for consensus. We may become too afraid that if we give an inch, the other side will take a mile. But when the “other side” is someone we love, maybe someone we live with, that way of thinking does not leave room for cooperation or collaboration, let alone a truly meaningful, loving relationship.
How do we stay united with a spouse or other family member, despite having disparate beliefs? How do we stay respectful toward one another when we have a difference of opinion on something that matters deeply to us?
“Division doesn’t only come from politics, or world events like the current pandemic. We can disagree on a multitude of everyday issues: religious beliefs, how to discipline our kids, division of labor, money and more,” said Maria Droste therapist Dawnelle Tilden, MA, LPC, LAC.
Dawnelle offers these guidelines to help navigate the tricky waters of disagreement.
People want to be respected, heard, valued and taken seriously.
Before tackling a tough conversation, sharpen your listening skills. When the other person is talking, resist the temptation to interject, either out loud or in your mind. Rather than thinking about what you are going to say next, really listen to what is being said.
When it is your turn to speak, begin by acknowledging the other person’s words and the feelings associated with those words, to make sure you haven’t misunderstood their position.
Remember the parts of the relationship where you are connected so you don’t lose sight of why you matter to one another. Look for common ground and build from there: “Clearly we both love our children and want what’s best for them…” Or, “I understand why you think A, but if your goal is to get to C, would you consider that B is possible?”
Try to see the other person’s side and consider what history and experiences they are bringing to the issue. Ask questions about how they arrived at their position. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of how we came to our own tightly held beliefs or if beliefs we developed years ago are still relevant to our present situation. Spending some time evaluating your own beliefs, fears and experiences can help you not only clarify your own thinking, but can help you better understand others as well.
Agree to disagree.
Changing the other person’s mind is not necessary to get a healthy close. Sometimes the best course is to respectfully accept the other person’s position. If you have to come to a unified decision, find a compromise that acknowledges both parties, and make an effort to ensure that one person isn’t always the one making concessions.
“This is not about me personally.”
Establish a wall of protection by reminding yourself that disagreement is not a personal attack. Identify your triggers and learn how to diffuse them. Stop the conversation when it gets too heated and agree to come back to it at another time.
Avoid causing your children to take sides.
Teach your children to formulate their own opinions and beliefs based on facts that can be substantiated, while acknowledging and respecting the feelings involved. Learning to think for themselves, regardless of which parent they ultimately agree with (or if they agree with neither) is a valuable skill. Teaching them that you love them, regardless of whether you agree 100% of the time, is also important for their development and will help them to be respectful, empathetic and kind when they disagree with others.
Find support with others if/when needed
Having a trusted friend or loved one as a sounding board can help you get an objective view of the situation if you are too close to know whether you or your partner are being unreasonable.
Therapy can help bring objectivity to the situation as well, and can help with anger management, communication issues, self-awareness and more.
*** Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Dawnelle Tilden, MA, LPC, LAC, for contributions to this blog. ***