Constructive Disagreement

My wife and I have disagreed on a number of issues over nearly 41 years of marriage.  Usually she’s right, but that doesn’t stop me from pushing for my point of view on occasion.  I believe one of the reasons we are still married is that we’ve learned to respect our partner’s opinion, in part because sometimes one of us is right and one of us isn’t.  That understanding requires a certain amount of humility and recognition that it is usually much less painful to acknowledge a bad opinion than it is to keep believing it when it’s wrong.

We follow other good practices that include things like refraining from name calling, bad language, or other forms of personal attack.  I don’t think we ever formally agreed to these rules; we just follow them because they seem important to maintaining a relationship we both treasure.  My parents set a good example for me by observing similar rules, and I think the same was true for my wife’s parents, who have been married for more than 60 years.

Marriage is a special relationship, but it has helped teach me to value constructive disagreement in friendships and work relationships as well.  I rely on people to point out problems or mistakes, and I’m puzzled when others fail to do so.  Healthy relationships, in my opinion, require the ability to question or disagree, although how it is done can have a powerful influence on results.

Questioning someone’s intelligence, integrity, or parentage is usually not the right approach to constructive disagreement and neither is a pointed accusation based on opinion rather than fact.  I certainly understand responding emotionally to threats or perceived slights, but I also give myself some time to think about the situation before making a public reaction.  Usually, my negative perception of another’s intentions is either wrong or disproportionate.  Taking the time to understand the situation before making accusations usually leads to a better outcome.

The failure to seek a constructive resolution to disagreement often leads to mutually destructive results for all parties to the dispute.  The vote over whether to dissolve the City of Damascus and all that has led up to it is a good example of a monumental waste of resources because people were unwilling to pursue a more rational course.  Expensive litigation is another example, although some litigants appear to be motivated more by greed or revenge than by any desire to solve a problem.

I hope anyone with sincere concerns about city issues will take the time to check out the facts and then raise questions if they are warranted.  I know it is much easier to simply express an opinion without bothering to investigate or to lash out when we feel we’ve been wronged.  Taking the path of least resistance, in these cases, usually leads to broken relationships and expensive solutions.

Keeping Things in Perspective

I have been feeling sorry for myself over the past week or so while working through a persistent virus that has kept me from running and getting a good night’s sleep.  I’m generally healthy, but I usually get a cold or the flu about once a year that can affect me for up to a couple of weeks.  I am happily almost over this year’s version and already starting to appreciate the comfort of just feeling good.

Yesterday I received an e-mail regarding a retired city manager friend who is fighting a recurrence of cancer at the same time that his son-in-law is suffering from terminal brain cancer.  My friend and his wife have been helping their daughter care for her young children during this challenging time.  I wrote a note expressing my best wishes while sharing some news of mutual friends and the daily challenges of city management.

My friend responded with some good advice about keeping a positive attitude and concluded by observing, If none of those thoughts are helpful, then you should laugh that a guy fighting cancer thinks he needs to give you advice….”  I am most grateful for the advice and the spirit in which it was given.  It was a great reminder that the worst thing that can happen to a person is the loss of belief in the importance and goodness of life.  If someone who is literally fighting for his life while helping his daughter and grandchildren deal with the imminent loss of their husband and father can keep a positive attitude and keep on giving of himself, then I think I can, too.

Perhaps the little challenges we face every day are preparation for the greater ones we are all going to confront at some point in our lives.  It is too easy to focus on and be distracted by the relatively small problems, leaving us unprepared to make much of a contribution when our best efforts are really needed. 

My most recent life lesson on this subject happened this morning when my one-year-old grandson woke me up at 4:30 a.m.  We were looking after two of our grandsons last night, and both my wife and I were a little tired by the time we got to bed.  I’m usually an early riser, so I got up to tend to the baby in hopes that my wife would get some needed sleep.  I changed the diaper and took the baby downstairs with the idea of keeping him relatively quiet for an hour or two.  I was rewarded with nearly two hours of time with my grandson.

 My choice was whether to be angry over losing some sleep or to be grateful for the chance to get to know my little grandson better.  By choosing the latter, my day has been much more positive, and I’m sure my grandson feels the same way.