Head2Head: It Takes Two

Los Alamos Daily Post

This is a new ongoing column on how to civilly disagree without compromising your core beliefs. This doesn’t mean that someone can’t change your mind. It means you don’t have to pretend you believe something you don’t.

I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the best way to handle what appears to be a political and cultural chasm in American society is to just shut up. We learn by opening ourselves to new ideas and exposing our own ideas to scrutiny and debate. How can you understand where someone is coming from if you never talk to them?

I also think stifling yourself whenever Uncle Steve is monopolizing the conversation by espousing his political principles, with which you very much disagree, is bad for your health, and bad for your ongoing relationship with Uncle Steve. You’ll start turning down invitations to Thanksgiving or end up throwing the mashed potatoes at his head. Not cool.

I have, shall we say, STRONG opinions about a lot of things. I’m also a bit of a contrarian, so I disagree with almost everyone about something. I love a good political discussion. I don’t love making people feel crummy, losing my temper or putting up with someone calling me names. I try to avoid these things and I’m willing to bet you do, too. I invite you to share your stories and insights with me. So, let’s buckle up and get started.

A discussion where you disagree is a bit like doing the tango. You just cannot do it unless both people want to. You have to ask this person to dance and they have to say yes. If Uncle Steve doesn’t want to talk about it, respect that, but tell him firmly that if the topic is out of bounds, that means neither of you gets to talk about it, not that he can monopolize the airwaves.

Assuming he agrees to talk, it goes like this:

“Uncle Steve, I’m not sure I agree with you about this issue. Would you like to explain to me why you feel this way?”

Uncle Steve may say something reasonable, or he may say something you think is stupid or morally reprehensible. Don’t panic if it’s the latter. Uncle Steve probably has redeeming qualities, or you wouldn’t be there having Thanksgiving with him. Keep asking questions. Make sure he knows you really want to hear his opinion. You should be listening at this point, not planning your rebuttal.

By letting your worthy opponent go first, you not only show respect for his viewpoint, you might learn something new. This is really, really important. The first rule of starting a discussion where you may disagree is to shut up and listen.

My cousin is an avid trail biker. She’s out there with her motorcycle group every weekend and they have a commitment to spend time on trail work and cleanup. Nobody loves or values the out-of-doors more than my cousin, trust me. She told me about trying to have a discussion with a local environmentalist group that wanted to ban trail bikes from every trail in the state.

“They wouldn’t even listen to us,” she told me. “They didn’t care what we had to say, and they had zero interest in working things out. They had this idea about who we were and what we thought, so they wouldn’t even talk to us.”

A light bulb went off in my head when I heard this story. Shut up and listen, you’ll probably learn something. So now you’re wondering if you ever get to tell Uncle Steve what YOU think. Yes! I’ll talk about how to do that in my next column.