September 15, 2014
What do you do when you find out that
your assumptions about someone were wrong?
A few years ago, a man I’ll call “Max” read a poem I had written for Support4Change and asked if he could use it on his website. This began a friendship in which we talked about ways I might support his work with people who have learning disabilities like dyslexia, and how he might promote my work on repairing relationships.
I took a trip to Houston to meet him and, while our collaboration didn’t get off the ground, I liked him and wanted to keep up the friendship. He comes from a very well-known family and I wanted to learn more about them.
Then one day about two years ago, I happened on a website with information about him and discovered, to my dismay, that he held extreme right-wing political views, including support of the Tea Party and secession of Texas from the union. I couldn’t believe it. How did I miss seeing that his views were extremely different than mine?
Unfortunately, I lost touch with him after that because I was busy writing a book, focusing on my health, moving to a retirement community, and dealing with the death of my husband. He was busy building his organization and learning how to be a new father.
Then, three weeks ago, I found the opportunity to begin a dialogue when he sent me an invitation to participate in a special guided tour of England. While I can’t go on that tour, this gave me the chance to write him about assumptions I have about him that aren’t true.
In answering Max’s email, after some comments about how nice it was to hear from him, I said:
I am glad you have written because I have wanted to write to you for a long time. You see, when I read online some of your views in support of the far right, I thought, “Oh my word, his views are so different than mine. I consider myself very much in the center and I wonder what we have in common outside of a desire to help people.”
Then I thought of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): How We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Harmful Acts by Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson. (See my review.) The premise of this easy-to-read and informative book is that we all tend to ignore or discount opinions that are opposite of those we hold. It makes perfect sense. If we believe something is “right” and we are then presented with a contrary opinion or fact, we easily dismiss it. Otherwise, we would be asking our brains to hold two different opinions at the same time, an experience called “cognitive dissonance.”
It is easy to suggest that the book be required reading for all those who disagree with us, especially those whose decisions have an impact on the world. But of course, human nature being what it is, leaders on both the left and the right — and the rest of us — are blinded by holding onto old beliefs. Our egos defend our opinions and experiences because they have been created by our opinions and experiences.
What does this have to do with you and me? And what could it possibly have to do with the wider world?
You see, I don’t know what I, personally, can do to change a world where religious justification kills hundreds of thousands. I don’t know how to convince Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and Hamas to stop building tunnels. I don’t have an easy answer of what we should do about a disparity in income and wealth where even financiers are beginning to sound an alarm.
However, what I can do in my own small corner of the world is to try harder to notice when I am making an assumption about someone. In a blog post several years ago, I said: “In a world where we are convinced we not only understand others, but know what is good and bad for them — even before we get to know them and learn their point of view — prejudice, conflict and war are sure to follow.” As Henry Winkler once said, “assumptions are the termites of relationships” and, I would add, of peace.
So, Max, I wonder what assumptions I am making about you, based on what I’ve read on the Internet, that are wrong. Might you be making some assumptions about me that aren’t right either? How can we find out?
Even more, how can I complain if politicians on the left and right in Washington don’t really talk to one another; yet at the same time not make an effort to understand someone in my own life who may have views quite different than mine?
So I suggest we can begin to bridge our differences by having a conversation (perhaps by email) in which we explore our views on social, political and economic policies. Approaching these topics with open hearts and minds can better help me understand why you hold your opinions — and you may be better able to understand why I hold mine. Maybe we can even find a way to change the other person’s mind, at least to a small degree.
Are you interested in exploring whether we can find common ground? Even if we do this only for an exercise in dialogue, it could be fun.
Readers, I would love to know if you have someone who holds views opposite of yours and if you are willing to commit yourself to an honest dialogue with him or her until you both understand one another better — and if either of you changes the other person’s mind.
I will let you know how that the dialogue project with Max progresses.