We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us,” US President Barack Obama said this month in the aftermath of the Arizona shooting which claimed six lives and left 13 wounded. His comments are a wake-up call to all of us about the extremes of violent disagreement and how we all must strive to resolve our differences with as much grace as possible.
“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives...to be better friends and neighbours, co-workers, and parents,” Obama said. As a student during the Vietnam protests, I remember how vociferous and occasionally violent some of my classmates were in their efforts to promote peace and world harmony. This puzzled me.
Fair and square: Pointing fingers and being sarcastic just makes the other person defensive
I noted that many of them were unable to get along with their roommates, which made me wonder how they could expect to bring about world peace. Today, we are still faced with war, violence at home and abroad, and incivility.
It is very sad to be an American and watch accounts of fatal shootings or deadly violence, and surely the same is true for Egyptians, Tunisians and countless others across the world. All for what?
Because we disagree. Disagreeing is a big part of life. That’s why mastering the skills to disagree effectively is pivotal. Yet, be warned: Whether you’re disagreeing with your boss, a colleague, or a subordinate, always choose which battle you really want to fight and whether or not it’s worth that fight.
To help decide, consider the timing, the location, the relative importance of the issue, how far you’re prepared to go to win, and the consequences.
Ask yourself: Does this absolutely need to be said? Does this absolutely need to be said now? Does this absolutely need to be said now, by me? If the answer is yes to all three questions—a rare occurrence—then proceed. I offer this recipe to disagree from my own experiences. I offer them not because I have mastered them yet, but because, as the Asian saying goes, “We teach what we want to learn.”
•Disagree in private, if possible. Public criticism does not change anyone’s behaviour. The other person is unable to hear the criticism because it’s likely she/he is building a defence. Deflect public disputes with, “I would like to think about that and speak with you later. This really is not the best place for a discussion.”
•Say, “It’s raining outside”, to yourself. That same tone of voice, with no emotion or judgement in it, is how to speak the lines above. Otherwise, you come off like a bully or a whiner.
• Use the first person. For example, “I might not have been clear” works better than “You don’t get it”. Whenever we think we are being judged, our automatic human reaction is to become defensive, and that’s where communication stops.
•No “Zinging”. For example: “Your hair looks great today. Did you wash it?” Ouch. Increased sarcasm is a lead indicator of conflict. The word “sarcasm” has its root in a Greek word meaning “to rip and tear the flesh”. What is constructive, or fair, about that?
•Stick to the topic at hand.
•Don’t interrupt. That is like shoving someone back down the hill they’ve just climbed. Interruptions actually lengthen conversations because initially the interrupted person thinks, “they did not hear me”, and then, “they don’t understand”, and so repeats and paraphrases, or worse, loses his train of thought.
•Restate what you’ve heard. “If I’ve understood you correctly, you feel..., and I felt it was...is that accurate?”
•Ask questions that clarify, not judge. Instead of “why”, ask who, what, when, where, and how.
•Stay in today, not yesterday. The past brings up conflicts or points fingers. Blaming is a judgement that invites defensive behaviour from the other person.
• Be willing to change your own mind.
Now blend these ingredients and let stand at room temperature. Do not simmer. Remember, we are only as successful as our weakest relationship. Fair fighting does not come easily. Yet each tiny victory brings us closer to personal harmony, and that brings us closer to global peace.
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