So how do we handle differences of opinion?
One of the major causes of conflict and dissonance in human relationships is differences of opinion. The human mind is programmed to form opinions on everything. We want our opinions to be heard and counted. Opinions are dear to us; they represent us and tell the world who we are. Our self-image and identity is heavily invested in our opinions. Our place in the social hierarchy is determined by how many people listen to our views. We are drawn towards people who hold the same opinions as ours. If our opinions are agreed we are happy, but if brushed aside, it is a loss of face. It hurts. Relationships sour. Differences of opinion can distance us from others.
So how do we handle differences of opinion? The first thing to realize is the inevitability of differences of opinion, that they are part of the design of life. They cannot be wished away. We have to accept it as a living reality and deal with it on a daily basis. As many people there are in this world, so many opinions there will be. We can only strive to manage these differences, without damaging relationships. A deep acceptance of this design of life will go a long way in lessening the pain caused by the unavoidability of disagreements.
We live in a world of opposites, and some differences are irreconcilable. The biggest one being ideology.
For instance, communists and capitalists can never see eye to eye. They hold diametrically opposite views. One believes in state ownership (though it results in low motivation and productivity) and the other in private ownership (though it results in concentration of wealth and inequality). These two will be fighting with each other till eternity. We are yet to create an ideology that has both high motivation as well as less inequality.
Similarly, a person who believes that power flows through the barrel of the gun will be at loggerheads with a person who believes in ahimsa and peace. So also, democracy and monarchy are opposing ideologies that cannot be reconciled.
Ideology has big time social consequences and has been the cause of much bloodshed. Ideology is an extremely strong opinion crystallized into a belief. Powerful emotions are invested in it. They grip the person and make him do its bidding. There is no flexibility. Everything is rigid and watertight. The ideology holds sway, irrespective of the situation and context. Ideologues will attempt to convert meditating monks to participate in a violent revolution. And it will all seem right to the mind to do so. Such is the power of ideology.
Though ideology gives direction, it is frozen in time, whereas life is dynamic. Ideology restricts choices. It forces us to live life through the lens of the ideology. An ideology that is appropriate for one era, society, tradition or culture may not be so for another.
It is no different when it comes to religious opinions and beliefs. People who follow different spiritual paths will be in conflict, each asserting that their path is superior and the other is inferior, though professing that their destinations are the same. The dispute is over process and they will try to convert each other to their process.
In all such matters there is no reconciliation possible. We just have to live and let live. We also have to tread carefully when discussing such subjects as they are emotionally charged.
In the medical field doctors constantly disagree, both with diagnosis as well as treatment. Modern doctors will snigger at traditional medicine while faith healing is pooh-poohed. The public is caught in the middle not knowing what and whom to believe. I don’t think we should take sides, but experiment and see what works. As long as it heals, any system of medicine would do. There is no point being dogmatic and swear by one system of medicine. All we want is to be healed. How we are healed is of little importance. Even placebos are fine.
We can reach a compromise with some differences of opinion, even if they are irreconcilable. Suppose the wife likes pink curtains, and the husband likes only blue. The solution is not to buy red as a compromise. That will make both unhappy. Instead, two rooms can have blue curtains and two pink. That would be a compromise.
We are all in the grip of likes and dislikes. We don’t know where and how we acquired them, but we are unable to shake them off. When they clash with other people’s likes and dislikes all we can do is compromise. In compromise each gets something of what they want, not everything. Compromise works well when it comes to choice of food, restaurants, household chores, music, vacations, movies, entertainment, TV programs. When we are living with others we cannot have it all our way. We must meet others half way. There must be a ‘giving up’ and what we get in return is a harmonious relationship. That is the best that is possible. When you make the other person’s likes and dislikes as important as your own, the mind will learn to compromise. If you make the other person’s preferences more important than your own, then you will be willing to give up your preferences. At times, this may also be necessary, but not all the time.
One solution for resolving most differences of opinion is to practice meritocracy as a way of life. May the best opinion win, should be the attitude. This will keep the ego away from the argument. Otherwise, we would always want our opinion to win, however impractical or unwise it is. When love of merit overrides the love of our self-image we have won a major battle. We will then give up fighting just because it is our idea but allow the better idea to win. We will evaluate opinions on merit and not on who said it. It doesn’t matter if you, your junior, an uneducated person, or someone you dislike said it. We separate the person from the idea. The opinion matters more than the person. This means we see ideas as ideas and not as somebody’s idea. Opinions take on an impersonal hue. They don’t belong to anybody. Then winning or losing an argument does not matter. The idea or opinion is all that matters. This is the only way to keep the power games of the ego out.
Some differences of opinion can seriously jeopardize relationships. Before they escalate to a point of no return, it is better to take wise counsel. This can be in the form of a specialist in the field or some wise person whom everyone respects. Suppose the mother wants home schooling for her child where she has control and can supervise, but the father wants a regular school so that there is more socializing with other children. One must give in ultimately. It will not happen through mutual discussion as the ego will soon get into the conversation with its emotions and spoil the show. It will no longer be what is best for the child based on the child’s personality, but on whose opinion is more right. Only a mature third party can bring about a rapprochement. They could bring in a different perspective which was not seen before.
Wise counsel will work well with such things as how best to raise and discipline a child, choosing a career, business strategy, health and money matters. Generally, people think that they can solve all their personal problems themselves. It is not so. Since emotions are involved, facts get distorted. Opinions harden. Blind spots appear. Prejudices are awakened. Opinions are believed to be facts. We will say things that we will not say during sober moments. To remove these cobwebs and attain clarity we need someone who is not party to the difference of opinion. But it will work only if you respect that person and he is mature enough. In business, it is common to consult experts, but not so in personal space. Having a guru or mentor is very useful during such occasions.
There are certain areas in life where opinions need to be unanimous. Differences of opinion have to be sorted out before taking the plunge. Buying a house, or even a car or TV, for instance – everyone has to like it, not just one person; so also deciding to have a child or adopting one, choice of education, lending large sums of money, relocating to a different city, major medical decisions, and choice of life partner. These decisions are mostly irreversible and have long term implications. We need to distinguish between reversible and irreversible decisions. With reversible decisions we can at least change them later, but we are stuck with irreversible decisions.
There are certain areas which are best left to one person to decide. For instance, investment decisions should be made only by the person who knows something about the subject, who in turn should consult an expert in the area. Consulting all the family members will lead to chaos and confusion and if something goes wrong the blame game will begin. As the old saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. Home décor is best left to the one with a sense of aesthetics. Some people have a dress sense and choosing clothes should include their opinion. Similarly, making travel plans, after the destination is decided, is better done by one person.
As many people there are in this world, so many opinions there will be. We can only strive to manage these differences, without damaging relationships. A deep acceptance of this design of life will go a long way in lessening the pain caused by the unavoidability of disagreements.
The deeper cause
The pain of disagreement is caused by our deep attachment to opinions. We need to examine this attachment and determine whether we can be free of it. Differences of opinion are primarily a clash of ideas. Ideas want to survive, and they use us to fight their battles. We have a choice not to become their foot soldiers in their war with other opinions. Most everyday issues are not worth fighting over.
‘Does each and every opinion matter that much?’ is a question that we need to ask ourselves. Opinions will tell you that they do. People don’t have opinions; opinions have them. They rule over us, dictate our lives and throw a tantrum if not listened to. They also make us believe that they are facts, the ultimate truth. Being highly opinionated makes life difficult for everyone. Fewer the strong opinions, easier the life for all.
Once you have made it big in life, your opinions will automatically have weight. However, the reverse does not work. You cannot make it big by forcing your opinions on others. But when we bulldoze our opinions a feeling of superiority arises. For the mind this is the next best thing to having made it big or achieved something in life.
Sometimes, even when we know that the opinions of others are not sound, we should keep quiet and allow them to learn from their mistakes. Alternatively, we can, through probing questions, make them see the weaknesses in their opinions instead of giving our views immediately. Giving a contrary opinion has to be done with tact and sensitivity.
It is not that we should have no opinions; that is impossible anyway. Opinions and views pop into our heads without our asking. It is a question of expression. Spot decisions have to be made whether or not to express an opinion and as to how it should be expressed. Timing is critical. On matters of values and principles, one needs to have strong views. We need to have a well-considered view on anything that has long term implications. We can have flexible views in areas that are not critical and allow others the satisfaction of having their views agreed to. We need to guard against opinions masquerading as facts. Most importantly, we must guard against an argument becoming a power play by being meritocratic.