The Ability to Understand Others’ Perspectives

I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion. This includes me. When conducting mock jury or other social psychological research, I almost always encourage the open expression of differing views by informing our research participants that “There are no wrong opinions or points of view.” I know some people who enjoy verbal sparring, however, I am not among them. I was brought up by loving parents who allowed me the freedom of sharing my point of view. They did not try to dissuade me, scold me, or tell me my opinion was wrong on the numerous occasions it differed from theirs. Whenever someone drones on and on about their opinion, which differs from mine, I used to say, “Whatever floats your boat.” Said with a smile, that is usually sufficient to stop the seemingly endless debate, usually about a topic about which I am not too concerned. I recently learned a new twist on this old saying and I am trying to work it into my repertoire. When, for example, someone tries to persuade me to like their favorite band more than my favorite band (The Beatles, of course!), I now say, “Whatever frosts your cupcake.” This usually results in an astonished look on their face and reminds both of us that neither of us is likely to change the mind of the other. It is perfectly fine to have an opinion, a belief, and a perspective on the way things are or should be, as long as one realizes that not everyone shares this view. The ability to understand other people’s perspectives, that is, to be able to “walk in someone else’s shoes” is something that does not usually come naturally for most of us, but with a little effort toward the promotion of harmony, almost anyone can do this. Now I am ready for a cupcake!

In our often politically polarized world, it appears difficult for some people to accept that other people have valid, opposing, opinions.  Our work involves watching “regular people” who are recruited to participate in our mock juries or focus groups express their opinions.  Clearly, some people are more adamant about their own opinions than others.  Some are neutral, some are followers, perhaps some don’t care to provide their opinions.  Most people are polite enough to listen to others who have something to say.  Some are not.  Some people seem to welcome being challenged and getting into heated debates with other people.  When one considers that these people do not know each other, it sometimes surprises me when someone is aggressive from the outset.  We get our share of the type who think their opinion is the only one that matters.  In our work, we want opinions, but civility is lost on these types of people!  I think they believe the only frosting that matters is in their favorite flavor.  That’s what floats their boat.  

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