What’s the right thing to do when you disagree with someone in public?
I’ve spoken and written before about how to discuss topics that can be charged (for example, politics, religion, baseball) calmly and productively with others. One tip I have previously offered is to turn off news programs where people with differing views resort to yelling at one another rather than listening to what one another has to say.
We should be able to have a civil discussion even if we disagree with one another. One key is not to try to convert someone over to your way of thinking. Rather, listen to his or her view, then share your own, if, for nothing else than to try to have a better understanding of why they think the way they do.
I was reminded of how to engage civilly while disagreeing when I recently visited Alex Strum’s Advanced Placement Language and Composition class at Holliston High School in Holliston, Massachusetts, via Zoom. Mr. Strum, who had been a graduate student in a course I taught years ago, had assigned his high school juniors to read four different prompts for scenarios where an ethical choice had to be made. Each student had to choose one of the four prompts and write a one-page essay in which they built an argument to support how they’d respond to the situation presented.
One had to do with social media age requirements. Another was on the appropriateness of searching online for information on an ex-partner. Still another had to do with a middle school teacher who was worried her students didn’t like her enough. The final one had to do with working for an organization whose managers expressed views you strongly oppose.
Mr. Strum hadn’t told the students that each of the questions posed to his students were drawn from some of “The Right Thing” columns I’d written over the past 25 years. None of his students knew how I’d responded nor that I’d be visiting to discuss their responses with them.
While some high school students (or even college students) can clam up in such situations and others have perfected the excruciating discontented eye roll, at least two-thirds of Mr. Strum’s students spoke for about an hour about each question. Even after Mr. Strum asked me to reveal how I’d responded, we spoke some more. Often the students disagreed with my take. Occasionally, they agreed. But they engaged by asking clarifying questions, trying to get at why I might have answered a particular way. I posed similar questions to them. They often did a great job convincing me about thinking differently than I had on a particular issue, even if I ended up with the same response that I had originally offered. (OK, some eye-rolling might have persisted.)
Listening is one of the primary things to do when you find yourself in a disagreement with someone. As long as they listen back, the chances are elevated that the conversation might be constructive even if neither of you convinces the other to change his or her mind. An hour-long conversation with Mr. Strum’s AP class convinced me such an approach continues to be the right thing to do.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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