Beliefs and Identity

In the last few weeks, I have written about beliefs, especially self-belief, and how to behave in a way that helps you and others feel significant, competent and likeable – key ingredients for self-worth.

Cover of Pink Floyd’s album Division Bell

But what about people with whom you fundamentally disagree, people who don’t share your beliefs?  This is difficult, because beliefs are an important part of who we are; when others disagree with our beliefs, we feel a threat to our self-worth and identity. This triggers the flight or fight response, we react emotionally, and the situation escalates into conflict, making it even more difficult to find common ground.  Once emotions kick in, people become more entrenched in their positions. We see this happening now on the argument over LGBT teaching in a Birmingham primary school and of course Brexit.

You can’t control other people’s emotional reactions, but you can control your own, and responding in a calm way will influence how they react.  Take a pause, count to ten, breathe deeply, think about what you want to say.  Use active assertiveness – say what you want clearly, use self-confident speech and body language.  Appreciate that when people react emotionally, it’s a sign that their needs are not being met – ask open questions to clarify what they want.  Find out what people are feeling rather than what they think. 

Adopt a position of “radical open-mindedness” – be prepared to switch your perspective to theirs, to understand their beliefs and explore the consequences. There may be aspects on which you can agree and can build consensus. It takes courage and humility to consider another person’s point of view and to set aside a familiar way of thinking to give a fair and honest hearing to alternative position.  Switch from the past or present to the future and use inclusive language – “how can we take this forward?”, “what shall we do next?”

Challenge your own beliefs.  Ask yourself what is your belief doing for you: how does it help you and how does it hinder you?  How are you acting out this belief and is this helping you live your life in the way you want?  Similarly, what is their belief doing for them?  Is there another way of meeting the need that is driving their belief?

We live in an increasingly complex, crowded world of competing interests.  There will always be situations where people have strongly held, opposing beliefs, especially on political, moral and religious matters.  Where beliefs are irreconcilable, we must find ways to respect the difference and find compromises that work for all.  Taking the emotional reaction out, recognising the need to work together to build consensus, rather than taking up opposing entrenched positions, is the only way forward.    

Spread the word!