politics and religion. right or happy?

Are these words cringe-worthy?

We are often taught, much like never working with small children or pets, to avoid talking about politics and religion in polite company. Well – we can’t live in the world without being aware of either, so why do we advocate staying away from these topics? Is it because we don’t really understand the topics? I doubt it. Whilst we have many experts in these fields, and that isn’t always us, it doesn’t mean we have to give it a miss. We can still talk about these subjects whilst remaining curious and respectful even if we vehemently disagree. Can’t we??

I witnessed a discussion the other day, where ostensibly the two people having it were of the same political persuasion – but they had a very different take on events. They were both passionate about their viewpoint and they both wanted to be heard. They also wanted to make sure the other one knew who was in the right!

But it doesn’t have to be like this. If we are prepared to converse like adults – religion or politics shouldn’t be off limits. We all have opinions and these subjects tend to engender some hearty and animated discussions at times. All of that is fine. A difference of opinion is fine. A conflict is actually fine.

Conflict, quite simply is a difference of opinion. OK so the dictionary says “a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one.” But we disagree…..surely that’s just splitting hairs. Right?

At the very core of conflict is this dis-agreement. As in there is no right or wrong – it is an agreement we either hold or we don’t. The “conflict” as such could be at polar opposites of the spectrum, or it might just be millimetres away.

It isn’t actually the conflict that causes the problems though – it is more than likely how we address it. If I rant and rave and you scream and shout – we are much less likely to meet anywhere in the middle. We are much less likely to learn something new. We are much less likely to remain calm and we are definitely much less likely to leave the discussion in high spirits or with a new-found respect for our conversational partner.

Religion and politics will always (sadly, in my opinion) be contentious areas of discussion. We all hold beliefs that are dear to us and we all at times, don’t want to be persuaded that we are “wrong”. A good friend of mine has always reminded me of the wonderful question:

Do you always want to be right, or do you want to be happy?

H Jackson Brown Jr.

When I asked my mother this once, she replied she wants to be both! Not really the point – but I see where she was coming from. Why is it so important for us to be right? Which is healthier? Which one will get us to a place of greater acceptance, more curiosity, increased awareness and healthier tolerance. I don’t think it’s being right. And – anyway, right according to whom? Right about what?

If we debate an issue, a disagreement, a conflict with an open mind, pausing to take in what the other person is telling us, really listening to their reasons – is there an opportunity for greater collaboration? Maybe. At times a conflicting discussion or argument is simply one way of belligerently ensuring we make the other person see our point of view. But what if there was another way? What if we went in with grace, kindness and curiosity about their opinion. What if we asked them a series of questions about their data or their viewpoint. What if we said things like “I’m not sure I see it that way”, or “I do think we hold opposing views”, or “that has never been my experience, I am keen to hear more” or “We may never agree on this topic, but let’s keep talking so we can both keep learning”.

If however, we go in with a point of making ourselves heard and right, and trying with all our might to persuade the other person that their opinion is worthless and we have the right one – then we miss those opportunities. We miss the opportunity to make ourselves vulnerable. We miss the learning something new, becoming more self-aware. It’s true, we might also miss a damn good fight or a blustering argument – but do we want to be right or do we want to be happy?

No small amount of courage

I recently sent an email of thanks to my old therapist. She herself isn’t actually old, but you know what I mean.

I value her so highly and together, we worked through an enormous amount of change over six years of sharing her office. They were gruelling sessions and sometimes the toughest times of my life. Being able to go inwards and work on myself was a great privilege for me and a gift I will never forget.

She reminded me that the work we do on ourselves requires commitment and no small amount of courage. Let’s be honest – it’s a MASSIVE amount of courage we need – I think she understated that! Not just courage in showing up every week when at times it felt like I had nothing to talk about, but courage going to the dark places of shame and discomfort that have allowed me to move on and improve my life, my experiences and my world view.

I chose psycho-dynamic psychotherapy when I realised that not all of my relationships were going well. And I knew it was time to look inwards, to stop blaming other people and start looking at what I was doing that might not have been helping that.

We talked about over 50 years of learned behaviours, experiences, fears and aspirations and some of those days were golden moments and some of those days I would come home and cry on the couch for hours, remembering some of the things that made me who I am.

I wouldn’t trade any of them. In her words, she saw someone in our first meeting who had potential. Potential for change. Manifesting this potential as we well know, takes endurance to accept that there are parts of ourselves that need changing.  The most difficult part, is making sense of how we came to be this person, being able to bear those painful realisations and in turn allowing the person we want to be to emerge, the truer version of our self.

The most difficult part, is making sense of how we came to be this person, being able to bear those painful realisations and in turn allowing the person we want to be to emerge, the truer version of our self.

It took me a long time in therapy to unravel my true self. It felt like a returning to something familiar. I think we are all born with kindness and compassion in our hearts – and things happen along the way to us that make us protect ourselves, or change who we really are. It took me a while to uncover the real, strong, flowing source of kindness and compassion I have now. And I am still – and will continue to be, a work in progress. I am now fortunate to use my skills to help others be kind to themselves. To let ourselves off the hook – to stop beating up on ourselves. That stuff gets really boring after a while.

The coaching work I do is based on self-kindness and self-compassion. It’s not therapy – it is most definitely coaching. Kindness and compassion are tools we can all use in whatever version of self improvement we choose. It won’t end well if we continue to beat ourselves up as a way of motivating ourselves towards achieving our goals.

We are attracted to kindness and compassion in others – there’s no reason why we can’t start with ourselves. When we know ourselves well enough – we can start to understand our own behaviour. We can make sense of our own reactions and our own responses not just to ourselves but to others. It’s a critical skill when leading a team – or being in any position of leadership that we first know ourselves in a way that makes us confident, consistent and caring. There is a real place for this kind of leadership. It achieves so much more than a command and control mindset – but it does take courage. This Emily McDowell image sums all of that up – our true selves are always there. We are powerful, creative, resourceful and whole exactly the way we are. We might just need a helping hand in unravelling.

This is what I mean by being kind and compassionate to ourselves.