It won’t take long before meeting me to realize that I am passionate about my beliefs and values. Snowflake, Bleeding Heart, some have even referred to me as an Empath although I don’t identify as an empath, but rather have a high level of empathy. There is a difference. These names I’ve come to accept and even embrace even when they are meant to be derogatory or hurtful. I’ve come to welcome them and I’ll tell you why.
We are in the midst of one hell of a crazy world right now. From a pandemic sweeping the world, a political divide in the United States that may be beyond repair, our black and brown fellow humans crying for help and change for a system that has oppressed them for our entire history, job loss, loss of education as we know it, the list goes on and on and that doesn’t even include all of the difficult issues we encounter in everyday human life. Life is HARD!
With all of these changes and disruptions to our “normal” life as we know it, it’s no wonder we see so much anger, grief, and division. How do we navigate our relationships with family, friends and coworkers with whom we disagree without compromising the relationship forever?
Step back. We’ve all been around Great Aunt Betty as she casually throws out words that are so offensive they make us come to a screeching halt. When this happens, stop, breathe, smile, and engage. Pause, take in a deep breath or two, smile, and sit or approach in a non-threatening matter.
Realize. Realize that whoever you’re talking to or is talking to you has had experiences that are different than yours. Their experiences have taught them to be the person they are and to respond the way they respond. We are all different and that makes life interesting, doesn’t it? Great Aunt Betty grew up when laws and rights were quite different than they are now. She grew up learning a language that has since evolved and she may not have been in situations to have learned that evolution. Realize this is a teaching experience. This step can be particularly difficult if you aren’t already particularly fond of the person to whom you’re speaking, it’s ok because it’s still a teaching experience.
Engage. Engage with facts, engage with relatable life experiences and engage with questions. Do not engage by making “you” statements. Try to make “I” statements and share your personal thoughts and story. Do not name call or degrade them no matter how tempting it is. This will end the person’s willingness to listen and learn. What if they call you names? When someone calls me a “snowflake” or a “bleeding heart,” for example, I use the opportunity to open the conversation even more. “Ok, I would probably agree with you. If by bleeding heart, you mean what I think you mean and you think that I care for other people more than you think I should. If that’s the case, you’re right. If that isn’t what you mean, please correct me.”
Pause and listen. Give the other person ample time to think and respond. Your whole goal is to get the person to think about what you’re saying. Allow them that space. Let the person respond fully without interrupting. Often if you create an uncomfortable pause, the person will continue on and create a more authentic dialogue out of nervousness.
When all else fails, silence is golden. Get out of the mindset that you must have the last word. If someone is in disagreement with you after trying to engage in civil conversation, it is ok. You cannot and you will not get everyone to agree with you. If someone becomes hostile in their words, end the conversation by saying, “I’m sorry but I see today we are not going to see eye to eye on this topic. I truly appreciate your engagement with me on this topic even when we disagree, not everyone does that.” If someone is writing to you on a post or in an email and it’s going nowhere, feel free not to respond. Let them have the last word, chances are it’ll irritate them enough and they’ll continue thinking about the topic. The whole goal of engaging with those with differing opinions is to make them think, not to prove that you are right. In the “bleeding heart” example, the person may think twice again before calling someone that or even better, they may think about what my definition of “bleeding heart” was and realize empathy isn’t such a bad thing!
Written by Mandi Benecke