“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
— from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act II, scene ii
Everyone’s heard this bit of advice: “Don’t talk politics or religion with family and friends. It only causes arguments and hard feelings.” What’s more, most of us know that these topics should absolutely be avoided in business settings. After all, project teams have enough trouble meeting deadlines and keeping the peace among stakeholders. Why borrow trouble by getting into arguments about politics or religion? Still… When long hours keep your team together late at night and everyone begins to grow tired and grumpy or when you’re relaxing together after hours at the coffee shop or tavern, it can happen. Someone let’s slip a little political rant, a philosophical criticism, or a bit of religious dogma and wham! You’re embroiled in one of these impossible-to-win battles.
Now, I’m a writer and a trainer. I like explaining things. And, unfortunately for my family and friends, I sometimes slip into my own passionate rants and extended speeches in support of my political or quasi-religious perspectives – “explaining” the seemingly unexplainable. Not surprisingly, this kind of behavior often produces a strong response from my listener, who soon begins his or her own passionate rant. These interchanges usually end as they do for anyone who indulges in such speechifying: In a total stalemate with my philosophical opponent or, worse, in silent frustration for each of us.
Later, after what could have been a pleasant conversation is long over, I find myself regretting the whole nasty interchange and wondering what happened. How could I, who can be so supportive and tolerant in the classroom or with my clients, manage to get into such ego-driven, horn-locking, polarizing disputes over these topics? After wrestling with this question for some time, I think I’ve finally figured out how these over-heated disputes happen. And I’ve also figured out why such disagreements are almost impossible to resolve.
It’s All Personal… Really Personal!
The cloud in the graphic shows a bunch of potentially powerful, life-changing events, experiences, or relationships that might float around in your consciousness. (Sure, you could add lots more items, but for the sake of this article, let’s just pretend that those shown here are comprehensive.)
As we wander through life, we find ourselves idiosyncratically choosing all sorts of experiences based on the advice of parents, teachers, or friends. And sometimes it’s not a matter of choice at all, but mere circumstance.
The world simply takes us places we never planned to go and delivers its lessons to us whether we seek them out or not.
Consider the stories of Mr. Green and Ms. Red.
An Example: Mr. Green’s Story
The cloud on the left shows Mr. Green’s most significant life-changing experiences. Each is circled in green and together they tell the unique tale of his evolution. As a child, he read a powerful work of fiction whose protagonist completely captured his imagination. This character and his values became a filter through which Mr. Green viewed the world the rest of his life. Later, as a teen, he suffered through a bad relationship with his father, who drank heavily and often delivered verbal brow-beatings that left him emotionally scarred. This led Mr. Green to become severely intolerant of anyone who uses alcohol, no matter how responsibly they do so. In his early twenties, he travelled extensively throughout the South Pacific where exposure to the philosophies of several island cultures changed his views about the way a good society should operate. Early in his adult life he married his high-school sweetheart, only to find that over the years, as they matured, they grew apart and he ultimately endured a painful divorce. This left him questioning the role of marriage in society, as well as unable to trust that anyone could ever truly love or be loved.
Bullied in his middle-school years, he developed a “strike first” attitude about dealing with anybody who might show the least signs of aggression. And in college, after acquiring the mentorship of a college instructor whom he believed to be a truly brilliant leader in his field, he was deeply disappointed to learn that this person was a mere academic poser, focused on winning any political games necessary to obtain tenure and a life-long position at the university.
Another Example: Ms. Red’s Story
In contrast, Ms. Red’s cloud shows a life shaped by different, but equally powerful, experiences. Her early success as a winner of an elementary school science competition led her to a career in astrophysics, which molded both her religious perspectives and her attitude about the role of government in supporting the sciences and supporting humanity’s quest to understand the cosmos. The death of her father, whom she loved dearly, strengthened her resolve to become politically active to help bring about his dream of a stronger science program in the public schools. Support from a charismatic and well-travelled mentor (whom she met in a comparative world culture class in college) helped her to make many connections within the international astrophysics community. This led to her aggressively acting as a champion of world-wide cooperation among scientists, sometimes placing her in opposition to national government leaders.
Discovering the power of meditation on one of her trips abroad, she now meditates regularly to help deal with stress and maintain her focus. Overall, she draws courage and energy from the many positive experiences that have shaped her as she pushes the boundaries of international scientific cooperation
Completely Different World Views
When their lives began, both Mr. Green and Ms. Red had a nearly infinite range of potential experiences available to them. Yet, through their idiosyncratic, unique experiences, life led them to completely different perspectives on political and religious matters. Each has developed a world view based on hard-fought struggles to derive meaning from powerful, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, events they’ve lived through. And these world views, precisely because they were so hard-fought, are something they feel they have earned and will continue to cling to as they refine their unique religious and political frameworks.
So when you tangle with either of them while arguing a particular religious or political point, you are essentially tangling with all that history, all that pain, all those joys, and all those hard-fought struggles to find meaning.
Is it any wonder that in the midst of such arguments, when you find yourself blasted by a passionate roar from your opponent, you sometimes feel surprised and shocked? And you end up asking yourself: “Whoa! Where did that come from?”
The truth is, it’s almost impossible for you to know fully “where it came from,” since the passionate roar that you provoked has roots that go deep into this person’s personal (and largely idiosyncratic) history.
Evolution of Personal Political & Religious Views: The Happy Face Version
So what might we generalize from the examples of Mr. Green and Ms. Red? The slightly whimsical graphic below summarizes what might be a reasonable model for the evolution of our religious and political beliefs.
In a nutshell, the unique miseries and joys we experience are powerful emotional events that take their toll and demand to be resolved. As these powerful emotional events pile up, we eventually develop an enormous need to become introspective as we try to figure out what they all mean. Sometimes this introspection prompts us to do relevant research. Often, however, the topics we are drawn to investigate usually resonate to the same emotional frequencies as the events that prompted our introspection. In other words, the topics of study that we seek out typically help us validate our experiences and help us decode the meaning in ways that seem consistent with our unique “cloud” of experiences.
Ultimately, we develop a distinctive personal vision of the way the world works. And given enough time to fall in love with it, we might even develop our own “born again” passion for this vision and set forth to preach our newly discovered gospel to anyone who’ll listen. We don’t necessarily mean any harm or disrespect with such preaching… we just want to share that amazing, empowering feeling that washed over us when we finally “figured it all out!”
Evolution of Personal Religious & Political Views: The Waterfall Version
Now if you are a student of project management or if you dislike happy faces, you might find the diagram below to be more palatable than the previous — especially since it looks more “serious,” and resembles the structures often used to depict project life cycles.
The boxes speak for themselves. However, there is this fairly daunting fact to consider: In each domain of thought, politics or religion, there is a nearly infinite collection of bits of evidence that can be found to support… and firmly cement in place… almost any chosen theme!
In other words, if you wish to cobble together a collection of “facts” to support a particular religious view or political philosophy we have plenty of sources to draw upon, including:
- Thousands of years of recorded human history
- Thousands of human cultures with differing perspectives
- Thousands of authors and sacred texts, past and present
- An internet that helps us find reference sources for all of the above
- A daily stream of current events and editorial opinions served up by the internet and traditional media sources
The internet is particularly problematic because it allows easy collaboration among people who would otherwise be separated by extreme geographical and cultural distances, as well as extreme political and religious views. To put it a bit starkly, the ‘net allows a handful of far-flung crazies who would otherwise have no real voice to assemble themselves in online communities that provide each other with substantial comfort and reinforcement for their ideas, no matter how odd they may seem to the rest of us!
My point: No matter what political or religious viewpoint you select in order to breathe meaning into your life’s unique miseries and joys, if you take the time to search, you will be able to find ample evidence to support it.
Why It’s Pointless to Argue About Politics or Religion
Now here’s the problem: Most of the time our hard-won vision of how the world works remains quietly concealed in our hearts. Yet it’s always there, just below the surface, waiting to explode all over anyone foolish enough to challenge us with a severely contradictory vision. After all, we’ve got way too much effort invested in this world view to allow it to be quickly changed by anyone. The result: Whether we like it or not, we sometimes stumble into one of those intense and unwinnable verbal battles we all find so frustrating.
Think about it: How can we ever know enough about the experiences and struggles-for-truth that lay beneath another person’s world view to enable us to adequately judge its validity? Can we really presume to be able to stand back and critique a world view that is built on a foundation of countless unique, idiosyncratic pains and joys that we ourselves have never experienced? Certainly not! That’s why if we try making such judgments, we soon learn that the emotional energy behind our listener’s world view generates a vigorous argument that ultimately leads nowhere… aside from an exchange of philosophical generalities supported by carefully-chosen (and highly idiosyncratic and personal) anecdotes.
The bottom line: It’s a waste of time (and toxic to your relationships) to indulge in arguments over religious or political philosophies.
So Don’t Argue: Be an Anthropologist… And Try to See Into the Cloud
In matters of political or religious opinion, as Star Trek’s Borg might say: “Resistance is futile!” One well-intentioned passionate assertion bangs against another well-intentioned passionate assertion. Or one negative rant is met by an opposing negative rant. Either way, smacking together all these visions and theories and end-point conclusions and derived meanings is simply futile. When you are confronted with a broad philosophical conclusion without “seeing the work” of the person who solved the puzzle beneath it, it simply hangs in the air between you – where it is met by your own alternative broad philosophical conclusion. The result: At best, you’ll be talking past each other. At worst, you become disrespected for the “stupidity” of your “ridiculous” position or make an enemy of your fellow debater.
Instead of getting ensnarled in one of these pointless interchanges, I recommend that you try to see into the cloud. That is, try to actively imagine the cloud of experiences that your fellow debater has experienced. Try to discern exactly his or her unique pains and joys. When you hear a political or religious or political assertion that starts to make you crazy, try saying something like this:
“Wow! That’s interesting! How’d you come to that conclusion? Tell me more about what led you to this perspective.”
Then, when your fellow philosopher begins to answer this question, listen. Really listen. Listen with your heart. Try to see the links between her personal experiences and her formal philosophy.
Become an amateur anthropologist, seeking to learn exactly what dwells inside that unique cloud of experience that has formed this person’s world view. Listen to the position, accept it (not necessarily agree, simply accept it) as it stands. Ask where it came from, then listen, learn, ask for elaboration, probe, relate, empathize, and try your hardest to understand with both your head and your heart.
As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand than to be understood… The deepest hunger of the human heart is to be understood, for understanding implicitly affirms, validates, recognizes and appreciates the intrinsic worth of another.”
So instead of engaging in a political or religious battle, give someone the opportunity to be understood. Who knows? You may broaden your own perspective. And, better yet, maybe someday she’ll return the favor.
Reflect on these questions:
- Which of your project team member or project stakeholders seem to have political or religious perspectives that “make you crazy?”
- What, specifically, could you do to learn more about this person’s evolution and how these perspectives were shaped?
- Despite your disagreements, what political or religious values might you have in common with this person?
Ask your team (cautiously, tactfully, and only if it’s OK in your organization’s culture):
- Are there subtle ways that clashes in political or religious perspectives are getting in the way of our work?
- Could we try to be more sensitive to the unique personal history of our fellow team members or stakeholders in order to develop greater respect for their “different” world view?
Project Manager Challenges
Ask your team (again, cautiously, tactfully, & only if it’s OK in your local culture.)
- If you observe serious clashes in political or religious perspectives between team members, encourage those who are clashing to “take a break,” step back from their arguments, and share a little about their history and evolution. (Encourage each to listen, not judge, and learn about the other’s life-shaping events and how these create a framework for their world-view.)
- Share this blog post, including the graphics, with those who are having philosophical clashes. Ask them to compare “clouds,” share life-shaping experiences, and try to deeply understand (but not necessarily agree with) each other’s world views.