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Opinion: Learning why people think differently will promote tolerance

When I was directing a communication seminar and wanted to illustrate why it’s possible for well-meaning, intelligent individuals to perceive events and people quite differently, I asked the group seated around the table to individually give their definition of “tall man.”

As each group member spoke, the “tall man” measurements varied only slightly, spanning from 6 feet to 6 feet 4 inches. Suddenly, all of us appeared startled when one lady said “6 feet nine.” Without hesitation, one of the group members asked, “What on earth made you choose that number for a tall man’s height?”

To answer him, she stood and replied, “Because I am 6 foot seven.” Instantly, her comment and her vertical demonstration illustrated how who we are plays a major role in determining how we evaluate others.

Certainly other factors besides our physical stature shape our perceptions. Age: As an adult with family responsibilities, would you drive 100 mph as you did as a teenager? Economic level: “Expensive restaurant” could mean entrees of either $15 or $75, depending on your fiscal stability. Moral values: To some, having an “alcohol problem” refers to a friend or family member who drinks even a celebratory beverage on New Year’s Eve, while to others that means undergoing inpatient treatment for life-altering addiction.

Let’s apply this perception principle to the vitriolic, divisive, often incendiary dialogue that permeates our society. Polarization has become palpably real and damaging. Friendships dissolve, even family disputes happen because we see so many issues differently — including race relations, politics, immigration, religion, sexual preferences, welfare, protest marches, homelessness, the pandemic and so much more.

Imagine how much we could improve every relationship if we inquired — even probed energetically and relentlessly — to find out why those who irritate us feel that way. Remember, the lady who said a man had to be 6 feet 9 inches before she could consider him tall sounded quite reasonable after we let her give the reason for her viewpoint.

No, I’m not saying we will necessarily agree with those who tell us why they think so radically different from the way we think. Yet equally as valuable as promoting agreements, we will open the way to dialogue that fosters tolerance and genuine freedom of thought and expression.

Bill Lampton


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