Sunday, January 4, 2009

What to Do When We Disagree with Other People in Conversation

In Stephen Covey's introduction to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he stresses that one must cultivate a character ethic as a path towards primary greatness. He distinguishes primary greatness, or who we are, from secondary greatness, mere social recognition for our talents or what we say and do.

Covey outlines many different principles that we should act on in our life to live the character ethic:
  • Fairness
  • Integrity
  • Honesty
  • Human Dignity
  • Service
  • Quality
  • Excellence
  • Potential
  • Growth
  • Patience
  • Nurturance
  • Encouragement

Covey insists these principles are not practices or values. They are in fact something deeper that stems from the human condition and that all of our lasting solutions will come from the "inside-out".

The point I most reflected on was,

"When other people disagree with us, we immediately think something is wrong with them."

Taking this quote to heart is quite eye-opening. He is right. This is the tendency of me and most people I know. When we disagree with someone it becomes a discussion, but that discussion is usually a covert attempt to persuade the other person that we are correct and that he or she is incorrect. Sometimes the attempt is much more overt and the discussion turns into an argument, and no ever really wins and argument.

What would the world look like if we could actually disagree with others without feeling the need to convince them that we were correct?

I believe we would need to cultivate the principles Covey outlines, and that it would also mean we listen by entering into the other's point of view without questioning it. This can be hard to do, but I find myself doing it often with books. This is why I can say whatever book I am reading is the best book I've ever read. It is allowing me to change my thinking without an argument.

Books present a great chance to practice this skill of listening without judgment. I know I can be patient with a book, even when I disagree with the contents. Transferring this mind-set over to real life conversation is difficult, but doable. It is better to practice a skill in a more controlled environment than in the heat of the moment.

One way to participate in a conversation where you find yourself disagreeing with the person is to stop believing you must convince he or she of something, simply listen, and view it as a chance to learn something that you did not know before.

It can really make for a fascinating time to consider the world deeply from an other's point of view as you listen to he or she describe his or her paradigm. In a sense, you become connected to that person in a way that is not possible in regular conversation.

Take time to consider what the person told you away from the initial conversation. Enter as deeply as you can into their paradigm and consider what similarities exist for you. Consider what differences there are, but still keep in mind why these might make sense for the other person.

After this process it is much easier to converse respectfully with someone you disagree with.

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