Going Behind Enemy Lines

In a country as diverse as the United States, it’s inevitable that we will come in contact with people with deep-seated beliefs that directly contradict our own. Sometimes, we may have so much trouble communicating  that we avoid interaction.   Here’s an example from a person who needed advice on how to keep a boss from discussing political views in the office. on who wrote to Fortune’s Anne Fischer for Conflict in general can be tough to manage, and we have previously given advice for successful conflict resolution.

However, when it’s a conflict between two or more parties’ fundamental belief systems, the more personal nature of the disagreement makes it easier for the discussion to get heated. In that situation, the unhappiness is not over a temporary offense. In many ways, it’s about who you are deep inside. When thinking of it that way, it’s not hard to figure out why so many people avoid discussions of topics like politics or religion. Is that healthy, though? Could we perhaps benefit from discussing these difficult topics with our “opponents”?

Omega Institute co-founder Elizabeth Lesser sure seems to think so. In her TEDTalk “Take ‘the Other’ to Lunch”, which focuses on political conflicts, she suggests that we confront these differences head on in a civilized way, in hopes of coming to a better understanding of the opposing viewpoint: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsSd2nmoKNA] Her guidelines are quite simple. Just focus on these three topics: life experience, what issues are of deepest concern, and what have you always wanted to ask the “other side”. Life experience is important because events from are past influence who we are today in terms of what we find important and what decisions we make.

Knowing what issues are most important to a person is important because generally, people form their political beliefs around a small number of key issues. It is pretty rare to find someone with strong opinions on every political issue. Finally, when each side knows what the other wishes they could ask them, they get insights into how their beliefs are perceived by those who don’t share those beliefs. In Elizabeth Lesser’s case, she and her “opponent” discovered that both of their political “sides” had been making inaccurate assumptions about the other.

Do you ever feel like people assign inaccurate stereotypes to you simply because of your political or religious beliefs? Do you have a tendency to think that people with certain beliefs share other characteristics as well? How do these thoughts affect the way you interact with the opposing side? You are probably more likely to put up your guard around the “others” if you said “yes” to either of those first two questions. It is a shame that so many people are more concerned with protecting their own beliefs than learning about someone else’s. Opening ourselves up to new ideas promotes creativity, flexibility, and the ability to solve complex problems. These skills can be helpful in so many areas of life. Maybe we should all take a cue from Ms. Lesser and start scheduling some lunch dates. Eileen N. Sinett Communications