By Ken Chapman, Ph.D.
Ken Chapman & Associates, Inc.
Respecting others’ opinions is part of a larger attitude of respect. As we grow older, we are expected to develop respect for the whole person. Respect for opinions is not an easy art at all. It requires self-esteem, self-control, sensitivity, tolerance, fairness, and generosity. And it applies both to stated opinions and to opinions that are unspoken.
There are at least two ways of showing disrespect for others because of what they think. One is by telling them that their opinions are crazy, stupid, worthless, etc. The other is by assuming that what we think must be what they think also.
Respecting others’ opinions does not mean being untrue to our own. It simply requires us to recognize that others are entitled to look at the world differently and that when they share their views with us, they can expect a fair hearing.
What we believe is an integral part of who we are. Therefore, we tend to perceive criticism directed at our opinions as rejection. When that happens, defensiveness and resentment can put an end to dialog. This means we should follow good protocols of agreement and, if possible and appropriate, do the following:
1. Save the core of someone else’s opinion even as you qualify your acceptance. “Yes, I agree that what you say may be true in general, but there are circumstances when . . .”
2. Recognize that although you do not agree, what you hear is not unreasonable. “Indeed, that idea can be appealing, however, . . .”
3. Allow that if you knew more, your opinion might change. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right, but perhaps there is more here than I am seeing at the moment.”
4. Make generous use of the metaphor of perspective. “Yes, but if you look at it from a different point of view. . .”
All these are forms of qualified disagreement which in most circumstances are preferable to absolute disagreement. Through them, you will usually manage to take the sting off your challenge. If, however, the opinion in question is repugnant to you, feel free to reject it out right. “I’m sorry, I believe this is wrong.” “I disagree, I find this opinion offensive.” “You know, this really goes against my principles.”
The way we react when we do not agree depends on where we are, with whom, and what we are doing. For example, someone argues that more public funding should go to private schools, an opinion you do not share. At a PTA or town meeting, you can take your time to present a detailed, forceful argument against it. As an invited guest at a dinner table, however, it is almost certainly best to gracefully move past the issue. In other words, you may want to balance your desire to state your convictions with your concern for good fellowship that your hostess worked so hard to foster. In general, any meal is not the best venue for a political debate.
Many speak as though their opinions were necessarily shared by everybody around them. This presumptive sharing can originate in simple lack of sensitivity or it can be a deliberate (if covert) way of saying, “If you don’t think like me, you should start now.” Either way, it is a form of bullying.
We are all victims at one time or another of presumptive opinion sharing. I find myself drawn over and over again into playing the worn-out game of television bashing. There is always someone who thinks it is time to remind me that television is awful and harmful to me and the rest of humanity. This is presented as a self-evident truth upon which everybody, with a semblance of a brain, agrees and which should go unexamined. I am thus expected to join in the condemnation.The point is that I resent finding myself inducted into a club I did not ask to join. Those who operate according to the “I’m sure you are one of us” assumption think on our behalf and dismiss the notion that we might have a different opinion. This is, for lack of a better word, rude.
Those with views different from yours may refrain from revealing them to preserve the harmony of the conversation. Or, they may choose not to challenge you because they feel intimidated by you. Aware that they are giving the impression they agree with an opinion when in fact they do not, may make them feel frustrated. Spare them. Present your opinions as just opinions rather than absolute truths. Make room for disagreement and invite feedback. Among the most civil utterances of all time is the simple, humble, and smart question? “What do you think?” Let’s use this question generously.
Who knows, we may learn something by listening in earnest to an opposing view. We may even discover that our opinion is not as good as we thought it was.
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