Let's Agree to DisagreeSteve Adubato, Ph.D.
Can you agree to disagree? That is the question. All of us have been guilty of needing to be “right” to the point where we communicate in negative, counterproductive and divisive ways that hurt our relationships with those closest to us.
Consider Bob, who is currently feuding with several family members and long-time friends over an incident that happened years ago. Bob insists that the way he handled this particular situation was “right” and that the others involved were clearly “wrong”. He has been harping on the incident for years, bringing it up not only at family gatherings and with close friends, but also with others he doesn’t even know that well in social and business situations.
As he tells the story of this ancient incident, based on his “separate reality” (to use a phrase by the late Richard Carlson, author of the “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” series), he inevitably ends by asking whether the recipient of his rant agrees with him or not. If you tell him he is “right”, everything is fine. But if you happen to question his handling of the situation or whether his particular communication approach could have been different or improved—WATCH OUT! Bob is likely to say; “What do you mean? It’s a simple question of right and wrong. I am right and they are wrong.”
Relationship expert and author John Maxwell says; “Most people carry around emotional baggage that causes them to react to certain people or situations.” The fact that Bob makes a compelling argument for his case isn’t the issue. The larger communication dilemma is that by constantly bringing up past incidents and painting himself as a victim and others as the enemy, he has alienated himself from people who deeply care for him. Further, it becomes extremely uncomfortable to communicate in social settings when some of these same people involved in this incident (or related incidents) are present. Some of those closest to Bob are starting to distance themselves from him, and he from them. (There is a good chance you are envisioning a “Bob” in your life right now.)
When confronted by a close friend about this very painful reality, Bob is asked the question; “Is it worth losing these relationships over the need to be right?” Bob’s communication is consistent; “I’ll back off when they admit that they’re wrong!” In fact, he goes further by saying; “I am just trying to teach them a lesson.”
Bob is convinced that he is absolutely right and that if he were to compromise or simply acknowledge that reasonable people can agree to disagree that he would be giving up his principles. In fact, I DO believe there are certain moral and deeply personal issues we should fight over. However, when one finds himself in a pattern of combative communication on a regular basis with those people who matter most in his life, the question must be asked; “Is there a different way that I should be communicating that would help me improve my relationships while still being true to myself?”
Seeing the world in black and white without any shades of gray is dangerous. Of course there is right and wrong, but we do have our separate realities and Bob refuses to believe that his reality is just that—HIS reality and only HIS—as opposed to a universal reality that everyone else must buy-in to. It has been said that no man is an island. So true. I only hope that Bob somehow realizes this before it’s too late. If he doesn’t, he could wind up on that island alone, being right, but at what price?P.S.—Remember. All of us have a little bit of “Bob” in us that we must watch out for everyday.
Steve Adubato coaches and speaks on communication and leadership and is author of the new book "What Were They Thinking? Crisis Communication: The Good, the Bad and the Totally Clueless" (Rutgers University Press). Write to him at The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, NJ 07102, visit his Web site at www.stand-deliver.com, or e-mail him at email@example.com.