The Mindset of ‘Understanding, not Agreement’

A couple sitting on a yellow couch while arguing.

By: Giselle General

There’s no need for a rocket scientist to tell me, or anyone else, that people seem to be more divided than ever. There’s enough commentary around lamenting the increasing ‘us versus them’ mindset, amplified by social media, people speaking out against injustices they have suffered from for so long, and people feeling anxious about all social, economic, and political changes happening around them.

“This is a hill I’m willing to die on” is one of those euphemisms that I, as a English as Second Language speaker, try to wrap my mind around.

In a government advisory board I volunteer for, a long-time board member suggested the concept of ‘understanding, not agreement’.

I think this means, making an attempt to follow the thought process of someone’s argument or reasoning, without necessarily agreeing with this person’s position. It is something I haven’t heard before and it stuck with me ever since. I think that there is value to what he said, something I am discovering more and I expand the ways I volunteer in the community.

It gets tricky of course when the person’s perspective is inherently harmful or invalidating the suffering of others. I don’t have an answer right now on how to navigate this. I think that would be the necessary next stage as I try to get more involved in the community.

In one of my recent appointments with my therapist, we talked about getting backlash and criticisms and how to react to them. One piece of advice she gave was ‘find the nugget of truth’. I think there is something to that. Even if a racist person keeps on spewing out problematic commentary, if you dig just a little bit, there is something else beneath the hostility. It can be ignorance, it can be fear, it can be lack of belonging, or a little bit of each.

Someone who keeps on mentioning economic impact when it comes to policy decisions might not necessarily be a callous jerk who cares only about jobs. Perhaps their train of thought is that financial stability is a valuable foundation of a person’s wellbeing, and if that is not considered, it can be tough to convince people to do certain actions.

Someone who keeps on mentioning the number of people dying when it comes to policy decisions might not necessarily be a delusional person who thinks the government has unlimited money. Perhaps their train of thought is that every single life has value, and believes that if a person is dead because of government policy failing them, that is completely unacceptable.

Back in university, I remember reading an article about how conservative and liberal minded people can convince the other camp of their perspectives. The essence of the advice was to use the logic and mindset of the other party to frame the arguments towards the topic of discussion. For instance, it can be valuable to say that increased environmental protections through policy can help preserve and maintain the God-given nature, a precious resource and blessing that deserves care.

Given that COVID19 is still an issue, after almost two years, in an attempt to protect my mental health, to protect people around me from being subjected to my anger, and to keep my faith in humanity, I’m trying a bit harder to tell myself these days “understand what led a person to believe that way, even if in my own mind, it is completely nonsensical”. A book I read during a trip, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, also reminded me of the natural and human flaws of decision-making and belief.

As I browse through the different definitions of the word understand, I’m trying to learn how people behave and communicate, even if I am not convinced of their mentality.

to perceive the meaning of; grasp the idea of; comprehend

to perceive what is meant; grasp the information conveyed

to be thoroughly familiar with; apprehend clearly the character, nature, or subtleties of

to accept tolerantly or sympathetically

to assign a meaning to; interpret

to grasp the significance, implications, or importance of

And in the process, I can see more clearly why some people have views that are discriminatory or ignorant. Many beliefs and behaviours are harmful even towards oneself, but from the perspective of trauma or being in survival more, a clear path emerges.

How about confronting and addressing these mindsets that are problematic? That is a whole different conversation altogether.

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