I recently spent the weekend with one of my dearest friends. She is brilliant, hilarious, kind and giving, and I just adore her. We have one of those rare and wonderful friendships that comes along just a few times in life (if we’re lucky).
But my friend also holds—quite literally -- the opposite political views as I do. And if I’m honest, I’ve often caught myself wondering why someone so utterly wonderful could also be so spectacularly wrong.
For that reason, even though I’d been looking forward to seeing her for months, I was also a bit nervous about what would happen if we talked about politics. I was certain that no amount of discussion was going to change her mind, so I decided that the best strategy was to avoid the topic altogether.
But in the weeks leading up to my visit, this vexing question still haunted me: how could my friend be so wrong?
Then, the day before I got on the plane to see her, a different thought popped into my mind. What if, I wondered, I’m the one who is wrong? It was a question that I had never considered.
Granted, for any hot-button political issue, there is rarely a singular, unequivocal “right answer.” Most of us realize, at least intellectually, that there are many valid ways of seeing the world. But personally, when I feel strongly about something, it's hard to see past my beliefs and assumptions. As a result, I rarely question them.
If I may be so bold, I’m clearly not the only one who is guilty of this.
Research shows that we typically assume that others share our views (often called the False Consensus Effect) and get upset when they don’t. After all, our beliefs are so rational, so well-thought out and so correct that unless someone was a total moron, they would come to the same conclusion. This logic is deeply flawed, and it makes us cling absurdly tightly to our opinions. (Research suggests that even when they are threatened by pesky things like facts, we tend to overlook those facts or discredit the source.)
Of late, as anyone with a social media account can attest, when we shout our beliefs from the rooftops and label everyone who doesn't share them ill-informed (or worse), there are real consequences to our self-awareness, our success and our relationships. Case in point: a recent study found that this year, nearly one in 10 people have ended a friendship because of an election-related disagreement.
But this problem and its consequences don't just show up in our political discussions. Perhaps you think that your spouse’s approach to parenting is ineffective, and it's landed you into a seemingly endless series of disagreements. Or at work, after shutting down a colleague who suggested a smarter strategy, you were surprised to see your performance suffer. Or you just can’t get behind your friend’s new significant other, even though you haven’t even tried to see this person the way your friend sees them.
Fascinatingly, our reluctance to question our beliefs may be biologically based. As neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran describes, when we encounter a differing viewpoint, the two hemispheres of our brain lock horns in a fierce battle. The left hemisphere, usually associated with rational and logical thought, fights to preserve our existing beliefs while the right hemisphere wants to play devil’s advocate and see things more objectively. But when our right and left hemispheres square off, the left hemisphere usually wins.
Given the biological basis of such behavior, does this mean that we are forever doomed to judge, argue with and “unfriend” the people who don’t agree with us? Thankfully, we can loosen our left hemisphere’s white knuckled grip, but it takes conscious effort. The question I asked myself with my friend -- "what if I’m the one who is wrong?" -- is a surprisingly effective way to help our right hemisphere get a word in edgewise.
Of course, when I first pondered this question, I was more than a little distraught. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it really was possible. Even if I wasn’t actually “wrong,” I was pretty sure that adopting this mindset would help me develop a richer, fuller perspective.
When I arrived at my friend’s apartment the next day, I dropped my bags and promptly announced that I wanted to spend the weekend trying to understand her political views. With a wry smile, she agreed.
From the moment we started talking, I found myself listening in a completely new way. I wasn’t getting upset or emotional. I wasn’t trying to compose fact-based retorts. I was just hearing her. This, I realized, is what the late, great Stephen Covey really meant when he advised us to “seek first to understand, then be understood.”
This didn’t meant that the entire weekend was easy. There were a few times that I wanted to storm out of the room, but it was far less than I would have predicted. By the end of the weekend, I had a much, much richer appreciation of my friend’s perspective.
Of course, it’s one thing to commit to understanding the people we love -- our spouse, our friends, our family -- but let’s extend this idea one step further: can (and should) we apply this concept to people we don’t like or respect?
I recently heard an interview with Amaryllis Fox, a former counter-terrorism clandestine services officer. In it, she provided one of the most profound observations about human behavior I have ever heard. “The one thing I learned in the Agency,” she said, “is that everyone thinks they’re the good guy.”
In Fox's case, she learned that the only way to fight the bad guys was to try to understand what would make otherwise normal people commit such grievous acts. Anytime we label our enemies as completely bad people -- be they religious radicals, the school bully or a particularly sociopathic boss -- we can’t even begin to intelligently deal with them. As Abraham Lincoln once declared, “I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.”
My “weekend of understanding” with my friend hasn’t changed my position much, but a lot of things are different. I genuinely respect where she’s coming from. I feel smarter and more informed. Most importantly, our relationship is stronger.
This is a somewhat counter-intuitive lesson: the next time you discover that someone you love, respect or work with has a wildly different opinion about something, don't waste time trying to make them see things your way, or avoid the subject in an attempt to minimize conflict.* Instead, ask yourself “what if I’m wrong?” and really entertain their perspective.
At the end of the day, as British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell advised, when we don't feel absolutely certain about anything, that's when we truly begin to understand who we are and appreciate others for the same thing.