On my neighborhood walks, I sometimes see a house that displays not just one, but a whole array of American flags even when no patriotic holiday is coming up. Instantly, I form a negative judgment about the people who live there.
I assume their politics are extremely conservative, that they listen to hate radio, that they don’t critically assess current events, that they hate immigrants and gay people—you get the idea. Without ever having talked to or even glimpsed these people, I make up a detailed story about their defects from my perspective.
And yet, it occurred to me recently, some of the very same yards that bristle with flags also feature exquisitely manicured lawns, harmonious, serene landscaping and vivid displays of flowers, all of which I enjoy and deeply appreciate. I recognized, almost against my will, that I respect and admire the hard work and artistry that goes into creating and maintaining such a lovely front yard, even if I vehemently disagree with the owner’s (presumed) politics.
The contrast between my initial judgment and my garden inspired reassessment, illustrates a transformation that conflict resolution specialists always hope for in a mediation or coaching session.
While it is very human to form instant judgments, unless we can set them aside and help clients do the same, we cannot heal deep disagreements. A willingness to discard self-righteous (and self-serving) assumptions, to truly listen and share our own truth are essential steps for peace making and creative problem solving. Mediators know that when feuding parties find some affinity, no matter how small, it often ripples out into the whole discussion and enables them to hear each other for the first time.
A shared love of natural beauty has softened my attitude to the flag wavers. I can no longer view them only as “the enemy.” I welcome this change, because I feel better and safer in the world when I see value in others, even those whose behavior or opinions I find objectionable.