“I respectfully disagree.” Being Nice Pays Off.

Being nice pays off.  (Maslin Nir, NY Times 4/17/2017) .  When we disagree profoundly with others, especially about existential or deeply personal issues, it can be hard to be nice.  With college campus issues surrounding free speech swirling, complex issues albeit, how about we start by encouraging students (and all of us) to learn to disagree, politely and respectfully?  It is not easy or always intuitive to disagree politely, especially when issues run to the core of one’s values.  So we have to practice, in and outside of the classroom.

I have been thinking about this lately because I am considering adopting ground rules for classroom dialogue –wanting to encourage students to critique each other but at the same time insisting they do so thoughtfully and in a civil manner.  Can we all practice that?  Can we train ourselves and, professors, can we train our students, to re-phrase our words to “respectfully dispute” the other’s points?   The key is this –dispute the other’s points, while remaining respectful of the other him or herself.

Sometimes, having a stock phrase in our heads that we can call up in tense situations helps us to pause, take a breather from the temptation to overreact, and instead to choose a thoughtful reaction –in some instances, choosing to remain silent and just letting the other air his or her views without reply.  (Note: I was reminded of the importance of civil discourse and of sometimes just remaining silent in a recent and most thoughtful sermon given by Rabbi Andrew Jacobs.)

What do I mean by stock phrases?   Here are examples.  I know, they are a silly, but they are catchy on purpose, for easy recall.  And, remember, you can say them, or they can serve as internal tools to keep them in your own head to remind yourself to pause before reacting.

  • “You engage, you enrage.”  A wise lawyer gave this advice to certain clients involved in terribly tense litigation: “Keep this phrase in your back pocket so that we can work together to diffuse and resolve the situation.”  Essentially, she was saying “don’t add fuel to the fire.”  She urged her clients to simply say to themselves, “You engage you enrage” every time they were tempted to even speak directly to the opposing party, and thus to help them hold their tongues.  [Note: most litigants can still sit together to work out settlements, even in tense litigation, but occasionally, things have just gone too far and parties must let all “oxygen” out of the situation for the fire to subside.]
  • “I respectfully disagree.”  Just using that phrase as a preface, especially if you follow it with a deliberate pause, can disarm the person you are disagreeing with, and buy you a moment to reflect and choose your next words more carefully than had you simply blurted back a retort.
  • “That is a very interesting point.”  We all know this as the hedging comment that often means “You are way off.”  But it doesn’t have to be dismissive or rude.  And, remember, this post is about phrases you can say or keep in your own head.  If you say it aloud, mean it genuinely.  (Even blatantly offensive comments can be interesting.  ‘Why did this person just say that?  What is behind the remark?’)  Think about how just that one line can diffuse a situation. You can shorten this to simply nodding to acknowledge you have heard the other, saying nothing aloud, and murmuring “Interesting, interesting” to yourself in your own head while you decide what if anything to say in response.
  • “I need to think about that for a bit.”  This is a stock phrase to say aloud to buy yourself time.  (Of course this is not an appropriate apply to a blatantly immoral comment.  But in many situations that could otherwise escalate because of a reaction, it can be entirely appropriate and useful.)
  • “People are for hugging, not for hitting.”  OK, this last one is ridiculous right?  Let me put it in context.  This phrase was given to parents of toddlers who were in a stage where they hit, pulled hair, bit, etc.  To avoid getting angry and yelling at the child, or worse, parents who mechanically but calmly recited this refrain bought themselves a moment to gather their thoughts and decide upon an appropriate response or consequence.

The bottom line, respectful discourse as we see on a daily basis is not intuitive and perhaps it has ceased to be the norm.  All the more reason to train ourselves, our students, and our children to engage in thoughtful, civil dialogue, and to know how to disagree with someone’s views without attacking the person we disagree with.  Stock phrases can be useful tools in this endeavor to encourage civil discourse.

If you have “stock phrases” you use to create a “thought pause” in tense situations, please comment so I can share them with readers.

 

 

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