Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk to People You Don’t Respect

Dear Justin,

I feel like our current discussions of politics and social issues are so divisive. I struggle to engage with them and frankly, I disagree with many of them—even when they are the opinions of my friends, family, and neighbors. It’s hard for me to understand how people can have the opinions they have. And I honestly struggle to respect some of their perspectives. Yet, it’s important to have respect for those we have relationships with. So, how can I respect someone who’s opinions seem hard to respect? How can I engage in these kinds of conversations when I know I disagree so vehemently?

Disenchanted

Dear Disenchanted,

This is a challenge we all experience—likely on a daily basis. We are constantly exposed to other people’s behavior or ideas we completely disagree with and often disapprove of. However, it is important to find a sense of Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose in those conversations and interactions. How do we do that when we feel so completely different from the other person and his or her opinions or perspectives? Let me share an experience that helped me see this concept in a new light.

A few years ago, I was taking a trip across the country. I boarded the airplane and settled in my seat. A few minutes later, an older gentleman boarded. He seemed to take quite a bit of time to get settled into his space. He stopped in the middle of the aisle to do a number of things: take off his jacket, pull items from his suitcase, talk to his grandsons standing behind him in the aisle, and then get out toys for them. Meanwhile, the line of passengers behind him piled up. An important point: I am, admittedly, judgmental of people who aren’t self-aware when they travel. It’s unfair and I promise I’m working on it.

In that moment, I was judging him a little harshly. My thoughts sounded something like this: “I can’t believe he’s not being more self-aware. There are more than a hundred passengers still waiting to board and he is just taking his time in the aisle while others wait behind him. He should have figured a lot of this out before he boarded. His behavior is not very respectful to the other people trying to board the airplane. I would never do that. I would have taken care of this stuff long before I got on the plane.”

As he finished his packing, he turned around and I could see the front of his shirt—it was the logo of my alma mater. Immediately, my thoughts shifted. I started to think: “Wow, I bet he’s pretty exhausted traveling with little kids. I have little kids and I know it’s not easy. I wonder how many flights they’ve been on previous to this one? I bet he’s stressed out trying to manage trying to keep those little kids happy and entertained on these flights. He’s a bit older and I bet these young kids are probably tiring the poor guy out.”

I didn’t reflect too much on my mental shift until long after we had landed. But, when I finally realized what I had done, I learned a valuable lesson. When we believe someone’s behavior or opinion is hard to respect, we tend to look for all the reasons that person is different from us. We do this to justify our disrespect for his or her behavior or opinion. We might even take it a step further and continue to emphasize or seek out differences to justify our disrespect for him or her. This mindset gives us justification to engage in all sorts of bad behavior: ignoring a concern, labeling the other person, or even attacking them and their ideas. While this “emphasize differences for justification” approach is easy and convenient, it is also less productive and not based in truth. The way we learn to have crucial conversations with people who have beliefs or behavior we don’t respect is by doing the opposite—look for commonality. Rather than focusing on or emphasizing differences, search for and seize upon any bit of commonality you may share.

Does this mean you have to agree with the other person? No. Does this mean you have to ignore someone’s potentially bad behavior? No. If there is a concern, you should address it. But if your goal is dialogue and meaningful influence, you’ll only achieve those when the relationship and the conversation is built on commonality.

I have yet to see someone in a fiery discussion suddenly change his perspective because of how disrespectful and clever the other party was; not only do people not change, they stop listening. And as I learned on that flight, sometimes the common ground can be small or trivial. When you look for similarities, you have the opportunity to see the other person differently and then engage with him or her differently. You see others a little bit more like you see yourself—normal, reasonable, rational people with opinions, ideas, and flaws.

Incidentally, if I had been better at looking for commonality when I initially started to judge the man on the flight, I might have actually done something productive like help him get his bags into the overhead compartment. My own disrespect made me less of the kind and caring person I’d like to be. The person I “tell myself” I really am.

I feel we as a society are in dire need to engage this principle more in our lives, our homes, our political and social discourse, and our organizations. I often see discussion on social issues or policy on social media where people completely dismiss another person’s perspectives (as different as they may be). They use cutting names and labels to make the other side not only seem different—but almost evil. This approach allows them to dismiss others’ ideas without blinking an eye and often feel not only justified, but proud. So what’s the bottom line? Mutual purpose and commonality can be the HERO in a moment of disrespect and difference.

Let me know in the comments what you think about this idea. Have you tried this approach, and if so, how has it helped?

I look forward to hearing from you,
Justin

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

39 thoughts on “How to Talk to People You Don’t Respect”

  1. Great post! Your personal anecdote was compelling and spot on, and the issue is perennially important, especially so today. Thanks.

  2. This article blessed me today. I am currently struggling with this concept and will focus more on looking for the commonality! Thank you. Just what I needed as I enter into a difficult conversation today.

  3. This is a timely response; daily life has been so politicized. I grow weary of it. I remember the grown-ups talking politics when I was a kid, and it got pretty heated sometimes, but I never witnessed the personal attacks that appear to be everywhere today. Since I do not fit neatly into either category (and I suspect most people don’t), I do not feel welcome in any of these conversations.

  4. I heard a quote from Brené Brown recently about how believing the best about people is even more life changing for you than it is for the individuals you stop judging. Seems to me it is true. It also goes with the old saying “don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes…” Good article. Thanks!

  5. Your story really resonated with me, Justin. Like you, I travel a lot and find myself acting on some pretty harsh judgments of other people’s behavior. I’m also a grandmother – and it occurred to me that despite that, I have a bias against older people! If I hadn’t gone to that gentleman’s school, I would have been hard pressed to become aware of that bias and lend that man a helping hand. Thank you for offering me an opportunity to further master my stories.

  6. Thank you for posting your article on How to talk to people you do not respect. I needed this badly. As usual, the needed article is posted at the right time.

  7. I really needed this because I’ve had difficulty talking to some friends and family about current events. It’s hard because some things that are going on in our public life really are evil. I have just had to avoid discussing these issues with people I care about who believe differently. Fundamentally I cannot understand them.

  8. Oh my gosh! Amazing timing of this article, thank you! I’ve been struggling with this very thing at work. There is a colleague I dislike and disrespect due to his lack of respect for people’s time and his total disregard for the chaos he creates due to lack of planning on his part. I’d really like to be the better person and not let my ill-will show. This perspective from your article is most helpful!

  9. I appreciate your article on How to Talk to People You Don’t Respect. About a year ago, while I was driving either to or from work, it didn’t matter which way, I realized I was often angry with other drivers. I was “disgusted” with their very aggressive driving habits. I decided to make a shift in my thinking. I decided that everyone just wants to get to work, or get home or maybe even “get to a hospital”. I started allowing more space between my car and the car in front of me. I started allowing vehicles to merge in front of me rather than try to cut them off. I started driving a little slower. Now, when I arrive at my destination, whether it be work or home or….I notice that I feel more relaxed and at peace with myself. That shift in my judgement of others was good for all.

    1. Christine, that is wonderful that you made that shift in your perspective and started being more tolerant/understanding!

  10. Thank you for this – it is a good reminder for all of us. Years ago I participated in a play at my church that required months of rehearsals, several times a week, which made it a challenge to schedule use of the building for others. One Saturday we had an all-day rehearsal scheduled – a wedding reception was scheduled for later in the evening. About midday the bride and several of her family/friends came into the cultural hall preparing to set up and decorate for the coming celebration. Of course she was startled to find a bunch of people milling about and very upset to learn that we were planning to be there all day.

    Tempers flared and there was a slight back-and-forth while people tried to sort it out. After a bit of time it dawned on me that there was a spirit of contention building that was not good for our performers, nor was it good for the bride and her family – this was not an us vs. them and there had to be a way to resolve the stress. Several of us got together and we started decorating and helping prepare for the reception. Instantly the mood changed and in short order all was set up and the bride went away happy and knowing that things were in place for her big evening.

    The added bonus was the mood amongst the performers for the rest of the day. There was a greater level of kindness and cooperation. We were careful not to disturb the decorations that were there and to be sure to leave things clean when we were done so the reception could be enjoyed by all. There was a feeling of community. It is an experience I will never forget.

  11. You are right on the money as far as finding commonality and our society needing to be more cordial in our conversations. Instead of demeaning nick names for our foes, we should be looking for ways to understand the others’ viewpoints. Civility does not mean weakness – I wish someone could convince certain politicians of this.

  12. This is great! I wish more people could get on this same page and be kind to each other when they have discussions about hot-button issues. I need to work on reminding myself of this to set a good example.

  13. Very helpful, Justin, and right on point. Especially the self evaluation portion of “what could I have done to help?”. Looking in the mirror is a powerful tool… if you look to see what happened instead of the facts you selected to dwell on to support the story you decided to tell yourself.

  14. Thank you for this. My father and I battled over politics for years until I simply stopped my story and realized he cared about his views as much as I did mine. When I finally acknowledged that with a “wow Dad, this is really important to you” comment rather than a rebuttal, our whole relationship changed. He actually told my Mom that he felt that it was the first time I had actually listened to him. I didn’t have to agree with his views, I just acknowledged his belief in them. Really changed our whole dynamic. I share this in all of my Crucial Conversations courses.

  15. Great article! My favorite part was your observation that “I have yet to see someone in a fiery discussion suddenly change his perspective because of how disrespectful and clever the other party was; not only do people not change, they stop listening.” True principle!

  16. i noticed a particular quote:
    “I have yet to see someone in a fiery discussion suddenly change his perspective because of how disrespectful and clever the other party was…”
    …which is in your life, but not mine or those of others i know (take the stereotypical italian family i’ve heard referenced here before); this is the indulged M.O. in our families, and not begrudgingly either …most of the time! haha
    i’ve seen it backfire –no pun intended, but i hope you enjoy it– with newer adult family members (who happened to be italian!), but it’s not without merit; there’s something more natural, more tolerant, more intimate (“family-making”) about being forced by circumstances to make lemonade from such lemons. i’m worried that such “flavor” might go missing if we all feel “too similar”…

    “the value of dissenting opinions…”

    i got started thinking, i posted this because i know different perspectives are valued…but wait a second, didn’t i just get done reading that i should be looking for commonalities?? aren’t different perspectives valued specifically for their differences? like diversity in the workplace??

    i know this isn’t incompatible with your guys’ messages, but there’s something being lost when we JUST see differences as something to be overcome (i.e. reasons to disrespect someone as an impetus to look for commonality) as opposed to relished: a source of information at least if not a new connection to the world… at least something that’s as fiery as the old way of doing things.

    all that said, i certainly appreciate your points as progress, and i do try to apply them where others are scared to play with fire.

  17. @juliegandy
    i started writing here about twenty-something minutes ago; it took me longer than four minutes to write my last comment, i promise! lol

  18. Fantastic article. I found a lot of myself in your situation. What resonated most was “My own disrespect made me less of the kind and caring person I’d like to be. The person I “tell myself” I really am.” Great example. Keep it up.

  19. Good stuff. I’ve been training myself to find commonality before opening my mouth. Getting better at it and the results/rewards are far above my initial expectations. The reduction in tension and anxiety is icing on the cake.

  20. You know what? I get it: Respect the humanity, look for commonality, blah, blah, blah. I totally drink the Kool Aid on a regular basis, and for the people that I don’t respect, but want to respect, it works great! But I recently had an experience where I have found myself in the position of feeling totally betrayed. Subsequently, faults that I apparently overlooked in the past are now glaring to me and I have lost my own self respect for not seeing what this person was doing the entire time. I’m in a situation where not only did I lose respect for myself and the other person, but I feel so betrayed I have no desire to invest the effort to re-establish mutual respect. I’m cutting my losses and I have no desire to put myself in the position to experience a repeat performance!

    For me, this particular juice just isn’t worth the squeezing!

  21. What an insightful, thought-provoking article! It was an “aha” moment for me. I really identified with the comment: “When we believe someone’s behavior or opinion is hard to respect, we tend to look for all the reasons that person is different from us. We do this to justify our disrespect for his or her behavior or opinion. We might even take it a step further and continue to emphasize or seek out differences to justify our disrespect for him or her.” Unfortunately I see this in myself at times, and definitely on social media. This article encourages me to step outside myself and look for any similarities first. Another “aha” moment was when you realized that had you thought differently, you might have done something to help him out. Imagine if we all did that?! Thank you for the article.

  22. I had a shift in my thinking after reading a Facebook post that talked about both sides of the table and what individual morals led to their beliefs. I stopped seeing people as misguided and amoral to understanding the reason they believe the way they do. Someone who has a strong belief in being inclusive and taking care of those that are in need is a different perspective than thinking a person is clueless, wants to let anyone into our country and give handouts to people who really don’t deserve it. My story for them changed. My morals come from a belief in God and Country and free enterprise. Do my morals make me a better person? No! I now see the other side as people who have strong opinions based on their morals. I may not agree with what they believe but I can honor them for their actions because they have strong morals.

  23. I loved this article. It’s something I struggle with regularly, especially when on social media where people attack others who think differently. My recent experience was great, though:

    I shared an article about a former president’s response to a school shooting. Someone I don’t know – friend of a friend, I guess – commented, “Well, he did nothing about it while HE was president.” I immediately thought, oh, it’s one of THEM – someone who hates that former president and misses no opportunity to criticize. But I decided to approach the commenter with a sincere question. “What do you think are good ways to deal with the school shooting problem?” We had a back and forth and it turned out he had good ideas and I actually agreed with everything he said. He just felt the former president had not done anything about the problem. I was glad I hadn’t dismissed him as a hater and had reached out to get his input.

  24. Thank you for this article. I have actually started a movement in the trucking industry called #SteeringTowardKindness because we have too many unhappy people on the road today. I share a kindness story every week on my SiriusXM radio show on Road Dog Trucking Channel 146. I am hoping we can start looking at others with more empathy than disrespect.

  25. Hi Justin, You’ve expressed exactly what I’ve come to believe, especially in this time of political polarity which has given me many opportunities to think on this topic and observe. It’s extremely challenging to change the mind of someone who holds tightly to an idea (or political ideology), but it’s sometimes possible to make headway when we express that we share the same concerns (commonality) if not the same approach to solving them. Thank you for an excellent example and article!

  26. I dint think your example provides a good perspective. Was the man physically and mentally capable of getting to his seat more efficiently? If he was then your initial thoughts are harsh but accurate. If he was not physically capable then helping would have been the thing to do regardless of the school he attended. Was your point you don’t respect strangers unless there is connection you find out about??

  27. Great example and insight in dealing with these situations. This particularly important when working in teams where a group of people come together, each bringing with them their expertise, experience and bias. By focusing on commonality more can be accomplished at a faster pace as they progress through the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing phases.

  28. A very good resource to add to crucial conversations is the book by Byron Katie, “loving what is’. Check it out. Thanks for the very enlightening incite.

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