Family Talk: Finding the good in disagreements
It seems we swing between extremes in our families and countries.
At one end of the swing we seem steeped in conflict. In some families, spouses yell and call each other names, sometimes turning their anger on their children. In our country, partisan politics is punctuated by personal attacks and disagreement becomes divisive.
But at the other end of the spectrum is a superficial peace that avoids conflict at all costs. Some families don't have tough, necessary conversations about boundaries and behavior. Some politicians smile wanly and ask “Why can't we all just get along?” at the price of surrendering their convictions.
Can we all just fight fairly?
There is good to be found in disagreement, whether it's in our homes or in our nation. We need frank conversations saturated with civil truth. Straight talk that doesn't pull punches but doesn't deliver them to the face either. Instead of eliminating disagreements, what if we could conduct them well and benefit from differing perspectives?
A recent New York Times article entitled “Kids, Would You Please Start Fighting?” discussed the value of disagreement in sparking creativity, citing those well-known, argumentative brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright. Columnist Adam Grant tells the story of an extended disagreement between the grown-up brothers over the shape of their proposed airplane's propeller:
They squabbled for weeks, often shouting back and forth for hours. “After long arguments we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other's side,” Orville reflected, “with no more agreement than when the discussion began.” Only after thoroughly decimating each other's arguments did it dawn on them that they were both wrong. They needed not one but two propellers, which could be spun in opposite directions to create a kind of rotating wing. “I don't think they really got mad,” their mechanic marveled, “but they sure got awfully hot.”
Maybe that's what we need to learn: How to get awfully hot without getting mad.
Years ago I talked to a counselor about my driving desire for everyone to get along. I was a trial lawyer who made a living in civilized conflict, but I was dispirited by disagreement, even when my young children argued. I told my counselor I hated having to break up fights between my kids. “Why don't you just let them fight?” she asked. “I couldn't do that!” the responsible dad in me replied. “Why not? What would happen?” she countered. “Well, they might kill each other!” was all I could muster. She encouraged me to just let the kids argue, being sure to keep things broadly in bounds, but to let them work out their disagreements themselves. I tried it, and you know what? They didn't kill each other. It was actually a very positive thing, honing their conflict resolution skills.
None of us particularly likes the sound of people arguing, but there is good to be found in disagreement when it is kept within bounds. Aye, there's the rub, matey. Keeping it in bounds. Tough to do on both a personal and national level. But if we are going to grow up, be creative and live cooperatively in our families and as a nation, we've got to learn to disagree agreeably.
Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.