Photo Credit: Sebastian Herrmann, Unsplash.com

Written by Jenn Gruber
September 9, 2020

It’s not uncommon to have differences of opinion with our friends or family members, and often adopting an “agree to disagree” attitude serves us well. We tell each other, “Okay, I know we don’t see eye to eye on this, but I love you anyway!”

But then at other times when we feel especially passionate about an issue, or when we feel like the outcome of a decision poses a threat to us or to those we love, or when we’re in the midst of an unusually stressful situation, the stakes feel higher than usual. In cases like this, setting aside our differences can be a lot harder.

Why Agree to Disagree Doesn’t Work

I love my friend Julie–dearly–despite the fact that we disagree on many issues. Normally this isn’t a problem. We know we hold opposing points of view and, in general, we don’t let that come between us. But I noticed recently that I was feeling uneasy about our relationship. Our conversations hadn’t changed, so I questioned what was causing me to feel more distant from her. Why, when we weren’t discussing anything controversial, was I feeling so agitated and annoyed? 

I gave myself a pat on the back for recognizing how I was feeling and then tried to figure out why I was so bothered. My first instinct was to respond, “Because she’s wrong!” “Because that doesn’t make sense!” “Because she’s twisting the facts!” I took a step back and realized that Julie was probably thinking the same of me. Rather than having an imaginary, defensive conversation with her in my mind, I looked more closely at the root of my frustration. 

That’s when I understood that I’m living in a time and place where there are two very distinct sides on many issues. The message that’s been ingrained in me is that there’s a right side and a wrong side. Anyone on the right side is “good,” and those on the wrong side are “bad.” That means if I’m good (which I like to believe I am), then people who feel differently must be bad. So by “agreeing to disagree,” I’m essentially accepting someone who’s “bad.” Finding common ground is impossible because both sides are extreme and absolute. 

I knew that I could choose to discard our longstanding relationship, accepting that Julie wasn’t worthy of my time . . . but did I truly believe that? Did her opinions really prove that she’s not a good person? She’s a great mom who’s interesting, charismatic, and fun to be around. She has a heart of gold and would do anything to help a friend. She cares deeply about the people in her life and wants to help make the world a better place. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I didn’t want to relegate her to the “bad person” category, and I questioned whether there was another option.  

As I considered this question, I quickly realized that I’d love Julie no matter what. I want to keep loving her no matter what. I chose to reject the notion that I’d need to sacrifice my own beliefs in order to accept her as a good person. I had to find space for both.

With this newfound awareness that we could both be good people despite our different opinions, I wondered, “Okay, I can love and accept her despite the fact that she’s wrong, but can I respect her?”

Meeting Others Where They’re At

By simply “agreeing to disagree,” I was completely disregarding all of the things that may have factored in to her opinions. What if, instead, I took a genuine interest in understanding why our viewpoints were so different?

I wanted to explore what would happen if I approached her with curiosity rather than judgment. When I did this–when I asked about where she was coming from and really listened to what she was telling me–I found that I was able to see her goodness without being distracted by the notion that she was wrong. From her perspective, her views made a little more sense. That knowledge opened up the possibility of finding the common ground I’d thought was nonexistent.

When I was able to meet Julie where she was, I could see the fears and desires underlying her opinions. I know in my heart that she and I both want the world to be a better place for our kids and their kids. How we define that and our ideas about how to get there may be different, but the bottom line’s that we both want the people we love to be safe and happy. By focusing on that shared goal–on what we do agree on–I was able to regain the connection to her that I’d been missing. 

My conversations with Julie are different now. We no longer feel forced to avoid talking about the topics we don’t see eye to eye on. We treat each other with respect and compassion, recognizing that we’re free to choose what we discuss and that we’re free to love each other regardless of whether we agree or disagree.

I see our conversations as an opportunity to learn something about Julie, about her values, and even about the issues we’re discussing. I understand now that our differing viewpoints don’t need to limit our relationship. Instead, they give us room to grow. 

How are opposing viewpoints impacting your relationships? Contact me at [email protected] or www.jenngruber.com and together we can explore how you can feel more connected to the people in your life.

Photo Credit: Sebastian Herrmann, Unsplash.com