Authored by: Kent Larson, Family Therapist
Last fall brought this country one of the most divisive elections I have ever seen in my lifetime (and I am old). The contention created has been seen in the workplace, at family and social gatherings, in social media, in schools, and wherever people congregate. What has happened to create such a division in this country? Is there hope for us? The solution to this issue is nothing more than showing basic respect toward other people, i.e. respecting their boundaries and having the expectation that they respect ours.
It seems that the very freedoms that we pride ourselves in as Americans have been ignored, the greatest of which is our freedom of speech. We may not have to worry about a dictator arresting and imprisoning us for our opinions, but it seems that we do have to worry about our loved ones, friends, associates, and others who we collaborate with, plus strangers on social media, attacking us.
My wife made a funny quip about one of the presidential candidates on Facebook near the end of the campaign. A dear cousin of mine became offended and all but attacked my wife. We seem to take the opinions of others too seriously.
I feel that we have lost respect and common decency for each other. It is not about having to agree with each other because, at times, we don’t and won’t. That needs to be okay and we need to allow differences. We can disagree with an opinion without belittling, putting down, or attacking the other person’s character. Sometimes, we take one opinion of somebody’s and make that how we perceive them as a whole. My opinion about a particular candidate is only a small fraction of who I am as a person. I am made up of various personality traits, values, hobbies, interests, etc. Unless those things are all considered, someone doesn’t have a very good idea of who I am. My opinions also don’t make me better than or less than someone else. I am just a person.
When John Huntsman and Scott Matheson Jr. were candidates for governor 12 years ago in the 2004 election, they both ran clean campaigns and spoke about each other with the upmost respect. They discussed their differences on issues without attacking each other’s character. I thought they set wonderful examples of how campaigns should be run. Unfortunately, it seems that in politics or in any other areas of life, people tend to feel the need to be right and not allow opposing opinions.
Over my 22 and ½ years of being employed by the Division of Youth Services I have met many wonderful fellow colleagues. One of them stands out in my mind. He is a person with whom I shared some similarities in opinion and some differences. The thing that I always appreciated about him was the ease at which I was able to converse with him about any subject. We could be at completely different sides of an issue in opinion and yet, there would be respect and kindness between us. I always felt respected by him, even in the face of strong differences between us on an issue. If this attitude could be practiced more by all in our society, there would not be the divisiveness that there is today.
Since we can only control ourselves and can only influence others, how can changes be made?
In my practice as a family and individual therapist, much of my time is spent assisting those with conflicts in resolving them. Respect for parents or children and assertive communication are often taught and worked on. I like to define assertive communication as “communicating in such a way that the dignity of the person speaking and the dignity of the person listening are both protected”.
This same principal applies in families, at school, at the workplace, and at social gatherings with friends and family members. If we view someone with an opposing opinion as the enemy, they will act as an enemy. If we view the same person with respect, though we disagree, it is much easier for them to respect us.
The difficult part of communicating with respect is when an issue comes up that we are very passionate or emotional about. When our emotions get involved, we tend to respond with disrespect, rudeness, cutoffs, or anger. There is a need for us to learn to self-regulate. That means to sense when our internal temperature is rising and then take actions to calm ourselves down before damage is caused to a conversation. This can occur through a 5 second pause to think or through a five or ten minute time out for the same purpose. Being able to sense increased pressure or heat in ourselves before we are beyond our self-control can make all the difference in the world for having conversations turn out well. The best way for us to influence the outcome of discussions with people is to be in touch with ourselves and to take appropriate actions so that we are in control of ourselves.
When we are in a conversation with another and that person is using disrespectful methods such as cutting off, mocking the our opinion in the conversation, using put-downs or condescending tones or speech toward us, we have the ability to change the subject, end the discussion and move away, or ask the opposing person to please not use such methods so that the conversation can continue. This is boundary setting.
Negative communication methods to avoid are:
1) Having to have the last word.
2) The perception that we have to win a conversation or argument
3) “My opinion vs. the wrong opinion” (I’m right and everyone else is wrong)
4) If I don’t like what someone else is saying, I will interrupt them, mock them, put them down, or bully them.
The antidotes of these negative attitudes are:
1) Problem solving instead of arguing. Working toward win-win situations where each person benefits from what is decided.
2) With people who have differences, finding the common ground between them. Finding common ground first can be the focus instead of the differences. Then people can respectfully acknowledge their differences and why there are differences.
3) Recognizing that it is okay and normal to have differences.
4) Be patient in conversing with others, even if they don’t seem to deserve it.
5) Use respectful humor to lighten up conversations.
6) Acknowledge the differences in others with respect.
7) Speak to others in a way that we would appreciate being spoken to by others.
Sometimes using the best efforts mentioned above will not stop another person from being rude, condescending, forceful, controlling, or inconsiderate. In most situations, we have the ability to choose not to be close to such people. I have had to do house cleaning of such people in my own life over the years. Doing so has made a huge difference in my own peace of mind.
If such a person is a family member, it is more complicated to distance oneself or to completely cut off such a person from our association. I have done it with relatives as well as close friends. Though not easy, it has really been the best option in a few situations. Each individual has to make a choice as to what is best for her/him. The choice to have nothing to do with someone anymore should not be made lightly.
I feel, however, that in most cases, respectful and assertive communication works very well in setting our boundaries and keeping conversations civilized and respectful with others.