Before I moved overseas as a missionary, I learned a phrase guaranteed to help with those inevitable collisions with my new culture and the way they did things.
“It’s not wrong. It’s just different.”
That one-size-fits-all saying worked for everything. I whipped it out when I wondered what my adopted country had against nice, orderly lines. I’d go into any public space, like a bank, and I’d find a mob of screaming people, some even crowding my elbow as I cashed my check. I’d tell myself, Their lack of personal space isn’t wrong. It’s not efficient, but it’s not wrong. It’s just different.
As the situation and my response to it escalated, I noticed how easy it became to label the person instead of question their action. When men peed on the ground outside my apartment building, I’d repeat my mantra through gritted teeth. “That man, that urinator, isn’t wrong, although it sure feels wrong. He’s just different. Boy, is he different.”
Then I discovered something. Most of my misunderstandings happened not with my new culture, but among my American teammates. The concept of not wrong but different proved helpful with any interpersonal disagreement. It didn’t take much for opposing opinions to devolve into personality clashes, hurt feelings, and grudges.
Later, as I traveled to check up on other missionary teams, one of the things they wanted help with most often was conflict resolution. Many of the things we talked about apply to the current American situation of choosing sides.
Live at peace.
Today in America, social media has given louder voice to our political views. We hold so tightly to our opinions, that not only do we argue any viewpoint contrary to ours, but we label the people who disagree with us as wrong. Words are typed that most of us would never dare speak face-to-face.
Our country is like a tinderbox ready to explode.
I have good friends and relatives on both ends of the political chasm. Both sides spew heated comments—ammunition for like-minded friends they surround themselves with. People who disagree respond with hateful and personal attacks.
Funny, but I’ve never noticed anyone change their mind after reading a social media post.
One writer-friend posted the logical result of this attitude: “If you don’t agree with me, just unfriend me because I am not your friend.” This friend, a fellow Christian writer, effectively eliminated half of her potential readers.
When I served with a large Christian ministry, it was generally understood that we shouldn’t take a public stand politically, one way or the other. Often, I questioned that. In the last several years, as our nation has polarized, basically split down the middle, I’ve seen the wisdom of keeping my political views to myself. As Christ-followers, do we really want to alienate half of the people we could share the love of Christ with?
I don’t want to add to the noise and division out there. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Romans 12:18 (NASB) Maybe we first need to step back in order to create bridges and live at peace.
They’re not the enemy.
Your work colleague, neighbor, or church friend is not your enemy. You have different opinions. That’s all. Everyone is entitled to own their opinions, and they will not all be like yours. If you shift your mindset to consider someone as “not wrong,” you validate them. You remove your judgment from them. That’s a good place to start.
At times it can feel like someone is your enemy when you know they’re not. Not really. But if they were, what’s the best way to respond to an actual enemy?
Jesus answered this in his Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6:27 (NASB)
If they speak words dripping with vitriol, our words should bless them instead. Jesus went on to give us the Golden Rule. “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” Luke 6:31-32 (NASB)
Find common ground.
Remember what you have in common with the person you disagree with. Don’t see them as all good or all bad, friend or foe, Republican or Democrat. See them as a human being, the same as you. You both need love, acceptance, and understanding—to be liked for who you really are, not who others may think you are or wish you to be.
You both want to do work that brings joy and fulfillment, and to contribute to the world in a significant way.
You both want your children to be safe, to learn and have opportunities. You want to protect them and provide for them.
You both want to feel secure at home and in the world.
You both just have different ideas of how to achieve those things.
If you look hard enough, you can find common ground with just about anyone, in countless areas: Food. Music. Movies. Sports teams. Favorite places to visit. Hobbies.
Maybe you need to think broader. What do you share with this person? You both live in the U.S. Or the same state or city. You both are women. Both mothers or not mothers.
I moved overseas from Northern California. There, I learned to distance myself from other parts of the Bay Area, from Southern California, the rest of the West Coast. But from the point of view of Eastern Europe, I felt a kinship with any American. If someone mentioned New York City, I felt like it was my hometown. Kansas? They’re my best friends. My world had zoomed out.
Focus on what you can talk about that won’t get your blood pressure rising.
Appreciate their differences.
Seek to understand this person. Get to know not only how you’re similar but also how you’re not. Don’t think of them as different in a condescending way, but in a “they are not me” way. They are unique.
When you’re ready, share your points of view—calmly and kindly. When it’s their turn, listen, without formulating your response as they talk and tuning out what they say.
Listen in order to learn from them. Maybe you’ll “get” why they talk, act, believe the way they do. Perhaps you’ll even find something to appreciate about them and their ideas.
Take a time out.
Many years ago, I learned a strategy to cope with anger. Before I say words that can never be unsaid, I need to take some time out, take a walk around the block or count to twenty, anything to give my emotions a chance to cool down.
When children act out, parents put them in a certain chair with the admonition: “I want you to think about what you’ve done.” As adults, if we took time to cool down and think before we speak (or type a post), there would be a lot less friction. We might even help bring peace.
I do my best thinking when I walk. The combination of exercise, fresh air, and change of scenery helps me solve problems. I remember that the person I disagree with is not my enemy. They’re not wrong. They’re just different. Maybe it’s time to take a collective walk around the block.