Conflict makes me cringe. I don’t watch reality TV shows in which judges give bad news, I leave the room when people argue, I can’t watch the presidential debates, and I rarely send my steak back, even when it’s a little too red. My mantra is Can’t everyone just get along? Can’t everyone just realize that it’s never just about them?
Of course, there are good things about my peacemaker instincts, but the value of being open to criticism is well known. In the fable of the musical tiger and tortoise, the tortoise manages to perfect his musical instrument by leaving it on the road and hiding next to it when travelers passed by so he can hear their criticisms and change his instrument accordingly. And at TED Global 2012, Margaret Heffernan recounts the story of Dr. Alice Stewart’s research that uncovered the dangers of x-rays for pregnant women, something that was unthinkable at the time. Alice was able to speak with confidence about her findings because she collaborated with a statistician named George who, rather than working the data to prove her findings, did everything he could to disprove her theories. Her confidence was driven by conflict. Heffernan acknowledges that purposefully collaborating to produce conflict is difficult. She says, it takes “finding people who are very different from ourselves. We have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different experiences, and different ways of thinking, and we have to engage with them.”
I would love to be able to adopt this attitude and practice at times. I would also love to teach it to my children. But I’m kind of at loss for how to do either.
Also, I’m aware of the need for balance. As an academic, I often get tired of what Peter Elbow calls “the doubting game,” or the need to always be looking critically at others’ writings and ideas. I see the need for Elbow’s “believing game” as well—intentionally believing others so we can adopt their points of view for a time until we can better see where they’re coming from rather than immediately rejecting or criticizing their ideas.
Which do you find yourself doing more—believing or doubting? How has conflict, criticism, or difference been beneficial in your life? And how do we balance the need for being open to criticism and difference with the need for believing, both in others, as Elbow suggests, and in our own selves? How have you taught either one to your children?