When We Disagree

Listening to President Biden’s speech to Congress last week (4/28/2021), I was a little nervous. I was remembering when Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shockingly yelled out, “You lie!” at President Obama during his speech in 2009. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels apprehensive when listening to a Presidential speech before Congress now.

In doing social justice work we can find ourselves not only at odds with people we don’t know, but challenged by those who we know well. Hearing that we are liars is, I hope, rare. But we might hear: “You are naïve.” “You don’t have the facts.” We might get the cold shoulder. We might get ghosted or cancelled.

This may also leave us surprised, and unable to respond. Like former President Obama said of that moment, “I am shocked.” If we have a thick skin, we might shrug our shoulders. Or we may cut off contact. Whatever our response, it is unnerving and sad to lose friends, and frustrating to lose connections.

Identifying and creating ways to ground ourselves in why we do this work strengthens us and our organization. It enables us to deal more effectively and compassionately with those who challenge us and with those close to us as well. The more we understand “what we are up against,” the more we can sustain ourselves when the unanticipated and shocking comes our way.

Staying in the Conversation

Here are two things we can do, rather than walk away from difficult conversations. One, find someone in your community to problem solve with. Brainstorm the question, “What happened to this person that they would say this?” Often we express our own trauma and insecurity by demeaning and belittling others. Or perhaps the individual is being pressured by political or corporate interests. What are they and who are they?

Two, identify a person/ally with power who can help you, if needed. Think about how you may go about finding someone. Perhaps it is a family member who knows this person well, or a colleague who has worked with this person for a long time. Can they help you understand why she behaved like this? Have they figured out a better way to work with him? Do you need a new approach?

Sliding into incivility or he said/she said/they said is not a solution. The foundation of effective action is supportive and collaborative relationships with others. Sometimes it just takes more – much more – effort on our part to keep those relationships going.