Learning from dissent can transcend our differences

December 1, 2012 

We just got through a very contentious election. Now what? Well, now we have to figure out how to live together despite our disagreements. Ideally, we have to figure out how to solve our problems despite our disparate viewpoints. In short, we need to learn how to learn from dissent.

How can we best do that? Is it possible to deal with dissent in a constructive rather than destructive way? The answer is yes. There are some very good strategies. The problem is, they aren't easy to do.

The reason it isn't easy is because in order to overcome disagreement, we have to first engage in real dialogue.

We can't just lecture people or demonize those we disagree with if we want to win a debate. We have to listen to them and learn from their concerns, their issues and their knowledge perspective. And to do this well we have to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong.

Most people recoil from this process because -- and let us be honest with ourselves -- the last thing we want do is find out is that we've been wrong. But if we aren't willing to consider our own position skeptically, we should not expect others to change their minds.

I find that considering myself and the people I disagree with compassionately helps me a lot. It helps remind myself that in any disagreement, I might be wrong. When I am, I benefit from being corrected.

My goal is not simply to tolerate dissenting viewpoints, but to learn from them.

The other thing compassion does is it helps me to remember that the people I disagree with are real human beings just like me. Most people just want to solve their problems. We may disagree on how best to solve them, but it helps to remember that no one intentionally promotes evil and/or insane ideas.

And it's this last bit of knowledge that is so critical to helping us transcend our disagreements.

When you recognize the common humanity of the people you disagree with, you open yourself up to learning and to compromise. If, on the other hand, you view your opponents as evil and/or insane you would be insane to compromise with them or even to learn from them.

This is why compassion is so essential. It helps us remember that we are all humans, that we all have flaws and that most of us are just trying to get through life as best as we can. If we focus not on winning the debate, but on how we can learn from each other so that we can improve our problem-solving, we will all be better off.

Jennifer Hancock, is a Humanist Life Skills educator who helps people be the best most ethical people they can be. Learn more at www.jen-hancock.com.

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