Raised voices. Increased heartrate. Narrowed vision. All the physical hallmarks of a discussion that devolved into argumentation and conflict. That these same physical experiences can also be seen when participating in a game with a team or during intensely intimate moments with one’s partner, should make us pause. We quite quickly write a particular story to provide us direction for our behavior, but the ease with which this occurs can blind us to other potential stories. If there’s even a shred of dissonance in your mind right now, that’s actually a good thing. Growth, personal and group related, occurs at the edges of comfort, not at the center of contentment.
Seeking Shared Values
At the heart of so much interpersonal conflict is seeing the other person or party to be devoid of anything shared with oneself. The groundwork for doing so is established through the dismissal of similarity, of what we share as human beings. It isn’t enough to rest there though, since to ‘be human’ is too vague. What we can start with is recognize our capacity to care about parts of life and identify those things through the naming of Values.
Declaring someone or a group ‘doesn’t share my/our values’ has become the go-to place for easy dismissal. The reality is that one of two things is happening: one, the means through which the value is being supported is not agreed with, and/or two, the value for which the behavior is supportive is not the same across both parties. Consider working late at your job and someone judges you for it, declaring you don’t value ‘family.’ One, this may be how you’re supporting family and two, when deciding on your behavior, the initial guiding value was of financial security or personal integrity. In both perspectives ‘family’ is not dismissed. The only person seeking to remove that value is the person passing judgment.
Notice that in the dismissal, the lack of engagement is the point. Once someone is made ‘other,’ there’s no reason for dialogue as there’s nothing in common to start the conversation. The person passing judgment wins by the default of declaring a wall around what is and isn’t a proper way of viewing your behavior. The whole of human experience is then limited to their singular place within reality. All else is subordinate. You cease to exist as an autonomous agent within the broad spectrum of human potential. There’s no exploration and therefore no possibility of growth for either party.
Life is not the book of mazes you picked up for entertainment as a child. There is no single path to the end because the end is more like a mountain range of many peaks instead of a dot on a map. This is good news as it means the potential for human flourishing is varied. You don’t have to be doing the same thing as another to find meaning, purpose and to live ethically.
The ultimate end of human acts is eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well, which all men desire; all acts are but different means chosen to arrive at it.Hannah Arendt
Connecting our behaviors to what we care about, our Values, requires stories or narratives. We move within the world through the roadways and paths laid down by our stories. Unfortunately, any time we focus too exclusively on the path we’re on, we tend to not see what’s around us, including other potential or actual paths. In this day of Google Maps it’s easy to narrowly consider one and only one way to get to a destination. However, try bringing out an old-school physical map or simply not have the AI tell you where to go, instead opting to view the broader map and decide for yourself. Odds are you’ll both see more and find routes you otherwise never would have thought possible.
Seeing the other pathways is key to understanding other people or groups. This isn’t about conflict or agreement, it’s a concern for exploring the variations in human expression. If you’re able to step back from behavior and see the story of how a Value was attached to it, suddenly there’s the potential for a dialogue that otherwise was impossible.
Transcending Conflict, Accepting Differences
Dialogue has recently been receiving a bad reputation. To have a conversation with someone has suddenly been conflated with agreeing with them, as if giving someone a ‘platform,’ whatever the size, is a declaration of support. The principle simply doesn’t hold, else we’d have to say support every thought that finds itself on the platform of our conscious lives. Not sure about you, but disagreeing with things that enter my mind is part of good ethical practice.
Acceptance is the space within which disagreement has room to be healthy rather than dismissive. Acceptance isn’t agreement, nor is it lazy. Acceptance is an acknowledgment of that the state of affairs, whatever they may be, is part of the shared reality you’re in. I accept thoughts of depression, not to give them voice, but to acknowledge they’re already a voice. I accept my feelings, not because they’re always helpful, but to have them take up the space they already have instead of giving them more than they deserve.
The opposite of Othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all the people.John Powell
Accepting different behaviors is to appreciate the cognitive dissonance at the heart of life. We can disagree while acknowledging that if circumstances were different, and they most certainly have been in the past, we’d be doing things we find objectionable upon later judgment. Seeing that possibility allows us to live through the wisdom of “there but for the grace of god, go I.” Our shared humanity includes the good, the bad, the gray and uncertain. Being willing to wade into dissonance, into conflict, with a desire to understand starts with noting none of us have humanity exclusively to ourselves.