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Rediscovering the Value of Dissension

I like it when people agree with me. I like it when the athletes on my team nod their head positively when I talk to them. I like listening to commentators on TV who support my position on any number of issues. Of course, I am not alone in these feelings. Agreement with our thoughts and emotions validates our own belief systems. Positive affirmation can give us all a virtual pat on the back for what we do and how we feel. None of this is new, but for many of us, dependence on accord and confirmation has simply gone too far. In a world dominated by social media and pop culture, our students live in a world of “likes”, “favorites”, and retweets. What has been lost by many adults and students alike is respect and appreciation for the opposition, those who choose to think or believe differently from us and are not afraid to share their dissension.

At a basic level, it is in our nature to reject opposing views and beliefs. We all fall guilty to the confirmation bias which encourages us to seek out ideas that confirm our pre-existing beliefs. It is not that we actively seek out ways to deny others’ opinions as much as we just want to be able to support our own. Steven Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People stated that most people listen to others only with the intent to reply, not to understand. When we hear others talking, our mind is preparing our response when it should be comprehending what is being said. Covey stressed the significance of being able to put our own personal experiences and narratives aside when trying to understand others. He called it the importance of seeking to understand before being understood.

When looking for blame in our aversion to differing opinions, social media is certainly an easy scapegoat. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have given all of us a voice to express ourselves publicly as no generation has before. However, they all also create a false sense of reality on how the rest of the world feels and behaves. We follow hundreds, sometimes thousands, of like-minded people. We “like” photos and comments that agree with our own belief systems. When we get the same favorable treatment from others, it reinforces our opinions and feelings, often in a way that makes us feel as though our beliefs have simply been accepted by acclamation. To make matters worse, should anyone dissent from our own assessments, we ignore them or even block them. When it comes to social media, our unwillingness to consider dissenting points of view has made many us literally unable to do so. We have created our own private community of virtual unanimity that simply reflects back our own thoughts and feelings.

Of course, we enjoyed affirmation long before the advent of social media. No one ever wants to spend their day in a constantly combative state, fending off counterpoints to every idea that they possess. However, if any one of us go through our lives day after day with only agreement from our friends, our family, and our coworkers, we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity for broadening of our own perspectives and germinating new ideas.

The more I read about successful leaders and leading organizations, the more I see a common thread in all of them that appreciates diversity and actually encourages dissension. Former Alabama Football Coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, was known for appreciating differences in opinion on his coaching staff. He stressed to his staff that if any two of them were thinking the exact same thing in a meeting, only one of them was needed. Organizations like Google reward employees that think outside the box and try to solve old problems with new approaches. Ironically, Google, a company that values differences in ideas has the mission to “create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world.”

How can we turn around this apparent growing affinity for agreement in our lives? Equally as important, how can we model this behavior for our students? First, we must present ourselves as open to considering different perspectives and backgrounds. We must acknowledge and even celebrate those who are able to present different sides to a position, and we must demonstrate an attitude that appreciates criticism. While it will always be in our nature to enjoy positive feedback, not all sentiments in our life have to be positive. When we do make mistakes or are forced to change our options, we should not see that as a failure. Rather, we should see that behavior as a key to learning and personal growth.

The benefits of being open to dissention need to be taught to students who are creating learning habits that will last a lifetime. By listening to all sides of an issue, they can develop a firmer foundation on which their opinions can stand. In the process of hearing another point of view, there may be presumed facts that they have to research to defend. There may be biases that have to be analyzed. While final decisions may not be affected in the end, the process of reaching those decisions may be improved. Perhaps more challenging for some, opinions may actually change. Previous suppositions may be modified, and new ways of thinking may be developed. Students may learn to appreciate a perspective that we would have at one time never considered. In the end, they will make better decisions, and that should be seen as a great win in our own personal scorebooks.

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