Of all the many challenges COVID-19 has presented us over the past year and a half, perhaps the most frustrating is how the virus and our responses to it have divided us. Disagreements abound on the use of masks; the efficacy and safety of vaccines; the safety measures put in place by local, state and national public health leaders; and more.
With the constant stream of new information and updates, misinformation coming from a variety of sources, and opinions masquerading as fact, it can be hard to know what to believe. With this uncertainty comes fear and, in some cases, outrage. What began as shouting matches on social media have spilled over into our daily interactions with people. And though we have been arguing the same topics for months, most of us have not gotten any better at the process of disagreeing.
Conflict and disagreement are important components of my role as CMU’s president. Difficult decisions — especially those involving controversial subjects — require thoughtful deliberation and debate. While I purposely surround myself with leaders who will push back and offer alternative perspectives during the decision-making process, I know that some people will disagree with our outcome.
When I entered higher education leadership, my father, who served as a faculty member, dean and a provost during his career, told me, “If you make a decision regarding a very controversial topic that doesn’t make at least some verbally disagree — sometimes even angrily — you haven’t actually made a decision.” In today’s blog, I will share a few thoughts on how we can embrace our leadership standards and create an environment that fosters the constructive, respectful exchange of ideas through the fine art of disagreement.
CMU must lead the open exchange of ideas
Although conflict can be unpleasant, it also can be an opportunity for engagement, learning and growth — an opportunity we are uniquely positioned to maximize at CMU. We are known as a community that lifts each other up while also holding one another accountable for our actions. We are known for setting the leadership standard by doing the right thing even when it is not the easy thing. Our university community has the tools, resources, reputation and ability to foster the positive outcomes of conflict.
In CMU’s Strategic Envisioning Process, one of our core pathways is to foster the dynamic exchange of thoughts, leading to action, while fundamentally committing to equity and inclusion. This means we have a responsibility to invite all perspectives into our conversations, and a responsibility to listen and engage respectfully and with compassion. This is what it means to set the leadership standard.
And it can be difficult!
We are all shaped by our life experiences. Where and how we grow up, the people who raise us, the challenges and obstacles we face along our journeys, and the interactions we have with others all influence our perception of the world. We develop our opinions based on these lived experiences, and it can be incredibly difficult to see beyond the lens we have shaped over a lifetime.
Yet we can, and must, try.
Author Arthur C. Brooks, in an interview with Forbes magazine, said “In our culture today, we far too readily assume that conflict and disagreement are harmful for us, emotionally and even physically. They’re not, of course — a competition of ideas improves outcomes, builds resiliency and sharpens our thinking.”
Disagreement and conflict are part of the human experience, and they can be beneficial. Disagreement presents opportunities to learn and expand our understanding. Conflict drives innovation and creativity; it broadens our ability to see and understand the world around us. Learning the skills to navigate both are vital to becoming a more engaged global citizen and achieving professional success. Moreover, these are the skills that empower us to be better friends and neighbors, to truly lift up the members of our communities.
CMU’s Institute for Transformative Dialogue offers tools and resources for engaging in challenging conversation — many students have experienced the technique of intergroup dialogue in classes, Residence Life activities and other leadership development programs.
Responses that set the leadership standard
Over the past year, I have reflected often on the words we have chosen to represent CMU’s core values: integrity, respect, compassion, inclusiveness, social responsibility, excellence and innovation.
These core values should be at the forefront of our response to challenging ideas and unpopular opinions. I offer the following suggestions as better alternatives to defacing property, engaging in shouting matches or tearing each other down on social media:
Pause and reflect
In our fast-paced world, we have conditioned ourselves to immediately react and respond to the things we see and hear. When we move quickly, we often choose our gut reaction over what our heads and our hearts would suggest we do or say.
With all the information and misinformation circulating about COVID-19, it is easy for everyone to believe they have science on their side. And, let us be honest, it feels good to be right. It is incredibly satisfying to post our favorite facts and statistics — it can even feel righteous to point out what we see as someone else’s misunderstanding. Yet that instant gratification is often followed immediately by a sense of shame or regret when we realize that we have hurt someone else.
So instead, pause.
In order to lift others up, we must first ground ourselves in the belief that the person or people with whom we are speaking have both values and feelings and are therefore deserving of compassion and respect. Remember that, deep down, we all want the same things: the right to pursue our goals and dreams, the sense of belonging, and respect.
Ask yourself why you feel so strongly, and determine if the words you plan to use will help you to build a bridge with someone, or if they will instead prevent any chance of meeting in the middle. The simple act of taking a deep breath before speaking can take the edge off a difficult conversation and open the door to understanding.
Avoid echo chambers
We well know that learning at a university is not restricted to the classroom or lab. Our focus on active learning at CMU is based on the understanding that a great deal of the knowledge, skills and experience our students gain comes from their interactions with people in other settings: registered student organization meetings, gatherings in residence halls, interactions outdoors on campus and during events and activities. Take advantage of these opportunities to step out of your comfort zone and into new ways to learn.
The most successful leaders have long recognized that diverse teams are the most creative and innovative. At CMU, we set the leadership standard by seeking out people who come from different backgrounds, who hold different opinions. We ask them about their beliefs, respectfully, and share our own. We enter the conversation with a desire to learn.
Consider this advice from a New York Times op-ed piece called The Dying Art of Disagreement:
“In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give [them] the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for [their] motives and participate empathically with [their] line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what [they have] to say.”
If we limit ourselves to interactions with people who agree with us, we limit our learning. At CMU, we will instead be open to — and inclusive of — new ideas and perspectives. We must take the time to understand alternate points of view and the reasons why others reached different conclusions. And, importantly, we must do so from their vantage point.
Think before you act
Physical demonstrations of disagreement, such as the destruction of someone else’s work, are not in line with CMU’s core values and leadership standards. Remember the words of British statesman John Morley: “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”
Refusing to let someone be heard does not win them over to your way of thinking. Respectful dialogue and engagement are the only paths to forging understanding and inspiring new ways of thinking. We win allies by recognizing their value, lifting them up and welcoming them into our community.
Be mindful of incivility online
Social media has made us more connected than ever before, yet many of us feel we are more divided than ever on these platforms. CMU psychology faculty members are working with teens and young adults to address the effect of social media on stress, anxiety and unhappiness, and it is no surprise that those feelings can bleed over into adults’ lives offline, as well.
If you would not say something to a person face to face, consider that you should not write it in a tweet or other medium, either. Reflect on whether your words are likely to lift someone up or tear them down, whether they will inspire and encourage or deflate and discourage. Ask if they will instill more dialogue, discussion and sharing of ideas, or eliminate that possibility and avenue of discourse. We can take the lead in creating a welcoming and inclusive community online as well as in person.
Know it is OK to walk away
Someone once told me, “You do not have to show up to every fight you are invited to attend,” and it stuck with me. There are battles I do not want to fight, and do not have to fight, with people I do not know. There are arguments I do not need to enter because I have no investment in the outcome. If participating in a discussion with an angry or aggressive person causes you harm, disengage. It is perfectly acceptable to agree to disagree and to leave the conversation.
Develop your own strategy
When we disagree, we have options about our behavior. I have given a few examples of how I try to respond in challenging moments, but there are many other tools and resources available to help you learn to navigate conflict effectively. For example, CMU Human Resources offers professional development and training programs for conflict management, and students can participate in a wide range of programs through Residence Life and other student service program areas.
I hope you will choose to read and learn more, and that you will always choose to set the leadership standard with kindness and respect for others, no matter how difficult, frustrating or unpopular their opinions may seem to you!
At CMU, we are known for doing good for the greater good, and that is a reputation we build every day with our words and actions. We all can make small adjustments to our behavior to create positive change and create the future we wish to see.