Civil Disagreement Tips for Addiction Treatment
Anyone coming out of substance abuse has extensive experience with disagreement. You disagreed with friends who told you you were overdoing it. You disagreed with authorities who said recreational drugs were bad for everyone. You disagreed with your own conscience when you “borrowed” to finance your habit. You disagreed with your better judgment and insisted you could “handle it.” And you experienced the agony of chemical aftereffects disagreeing with you. In sobriety you will learn civil disagreement.
How did you handle all those disagreements? If you were typical, you either reacted with “Get off my back” defensiveness, or changed the subject as quickly as possible. Either way, you spent a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself because “no one understands and everything happens to me.”
In readjusting to the “normal” world, you may notice one common point with the world of substance abuse: unhealthy disagreement is part of everyday life. You must turn yours into civil disagreements to stay sober and calm. Just listen to the political speeches for the 2016 elections. Just Google “what’s wrong with” any issue of your choice. Just sit on a busy downtown corner for an hour!
Everyone today seems to have forgotten what Voltaire wrote in eighteenth-century France: “Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” The common paraphrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is even more counter to the accepted way of the world. Standard “look out for Number One” thinking says that if you can’t bully people into agreeing with you, the best alternative is to convince everyone else that your opponents are stupid.
This Means War!
That approach may work for trial lawyers who win their cases one argument at a time, but in the larger world, it’s more likely to build you a reputation of being unreasonable and impossible. Wasn’t that how you lost many of your relationships when substance abuse controlled your daily life?
There are other problems with the instant-defensiveness mode of disagreement:
- It turns minor differences of opinion into major wars. Whatever you think of others’ opinions, the ones who hold those opinions are as human as you; they have their pride and the instinct to defend it at all costs. It’s hard to be defensive without crossing the line to usurp the offensive position, and once that happens, you get two sides alternately defending themselves with increasing vehemence, too busy glaring at each other to see the crash they’re accelerating toward. Wouldn’t civil disagreement work much better for both parties?
- It ruins any chance of getting your opponent to see your side. The second you personally attack someone’s intelligence or integrity—and even a raised voice can send the subtle message “You don’t know what you’re talking about”—you’ve merged the immediate point of argument with your opponent’s personal identity. Not only that, you’ve sent the message that you expect total agreement and a humble apology. People rarely change their opinions when the price includes groveling before anyone else’s pride.
- It reinforces your own opinion in unhealthy ways. What do you do if—as is commonly the case when people nag you about “drinking too much”—it starts to become clear that the other party is right after all? You’ve baked yourself a major humble pie, and you’re stuck with the choice of eating it or defending an indefensible position to the death. Your options could have been far less painful had you taken time to seriously evaluate opposing opinions early on.
Evaluate Yourself First During a Civil Disagreement
Unfortunately, most of us resist evaluating others’ opinions because we’re comfortable taking our own for granted—even when we don’t really understand our own. We like thinking that what we believe is only what “everybody knows.” We don’t bother to consider why we find these ideas reasonable, because that would be a lot of work spent justifying something that everyone takes on authority anyway.
Then, when we realize that “everyone” really isn’t everyone, something in us panics. Have we been wrong all along? An affirmative answer would not only affect our pride and comfort zones: it might mean changing our lifestyle, our relationships, even our stakes in the nature of the universe and things beyond. People who are truly confident in their opinions rarely display the angry behavior associated with defensiveness; it’s those who never really questioned who go into fight-for-your-life mode. And on some level, it feels like exactly that.
Truth is, there are far fewer absolutes than we like to believe, and the ones that exist are impossible to understand infallibly. So if you catch yourself about to lash out in disagreement, ask yourself: Why do I believe as I do? Why do they believe as they do? What points have they brought up that I hadn’t considered before? If we both keep our opinions, what do they have in common? That is how you have a civil disagreement.
Often, you needn’t even tell the other party that you disagree, or you can quickly refocus the discussion to more agreeable matters. But if negotiation or debate is called for, follow these Rules of Civil Disagreement:
- Listen at least as much as you talk. (And really listen—don’t just wait your turn.)
- When you do answer an argument, include a reiteration of the other’s point of view—noting that this is how you understood it. They may realize that what’s coming out isn’t what they meant to say. If nothing else, they’ll respect you for finding them worth your attention.
- Give special attention to any points where you agree—and especially to any on which you change your mind.
- If you even suspect you have something to apologize for, do so immediately.
- Never interrupt, contradict, or roll your eyes. Never let condescension or annoyance slip into your voice.
- Never personally insult the other party in any way.
- On the rare occasion when you find yourself dealing with a hothead who cares nothing for any of the above rules, don’t let yourself be bullied, but don’t waste time trying to reason with him. Excuse yourself immediately, and ignore any future provocation until he’s willing to relate as one intelligent person to another.
- Always respect the human dignity of everyone—including yourself.
Finding Your Voice of Reason with Kemah Palms
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