It is a tragedy when friendships dissolve over disagreements. At some time or another, conflict within relationships is inevitable due to differing temperaments, misunderstandings, and other extraneous factors that influence who we are, what we believe, and how we view the world. It seems, however, that most of us erroneously assume that we’ll get along with our friends without unexpected hiccups. When a hot-button issue becomes the topic for lively debate, and you chime in with your opinion, what happens if the conversation quickly turns sour?
The root of conversation should be mutually enriching and based upon an unspoken understanding that friends, while different, are speaking and listening to each other out of charity. Here are three ways that we can disagree with our friends without harming or severing the relationship.
Understand differences in temperament (yours and theirs)
Are you a choleric, sanguine, melancholic, or phlegmatic? If you are unfamiliar with the four temperaments (which are closely related to personality), get acquainted with them. After reading The Temperament God Gave You by Art and Laraine Bennett, my entire understanding of human behavior dramatically shifted. Before reading it, I would often respond defensively to those who questioned or outright challenged my opinion, but this book honestly helped me to grasp the motivations behind why and how we react to questions and comments in social situations.
Cholerics are the lions who take charge. Their ambition and need to be right often outweighs their ability to speak charitably. To the choleric, a direct approach and forthright response is favorable to a more diplomatic one. Arguments often fuel his quest for obtaining knowledge, and he is unafraid to engage in debate rigorously and vocally.
The goal of a sanguine, however, is to get everyone to laugh and enjoy the merriment of fellowship. Sanguines are more concerned with relationships than with rhetorical questions or lending their perspective on a specific social, political, or moral issue. The sanguine is a natural extrovert whose preference is lighthearted conversation rather than discussing dense dissertations.
Melancholics are the sensitive, pensive souls who both think and feel deeply, especially about matters pertaining to truth and justice. He will offer his honest opinion when asked, but if an argument ensues, he may retreat inwardly for some introspection. The melancholic often internalizes feedback from others in conversation, yet doesn’t always speak up about issues of personal importance to him. He is a natural introvert who prefers to listen to others converse while noting the errors in the argument.
Phlegmatics are the natural peacemakers in a group. Not only will they likely refrain from discussing tense or terse topics, but their main concern is to also make sure everyone is getting along. Cooperation and unity are highly valued by the phlegmatic, who likely will chime in with a thoughtful and diplomatic point during a lively discussion.
When you understand your own natural inclination in handling difficult topics of conversation with others, you can then observe the dynamics of everyone else who is present for the discussion. Who initiates the dreaded question about politics? It’s probably the choleric. Who are the ones observing those playing verbal ping-pong? They might be the melancholics or phlegmatics. If anyone is interjecting with appropriate puns to offer a bit of levity to the heavy tone of the conversation, you can bet that is your sanguine.
Get to know yourself and others. When you can at least empathize with their temperaments (especially if they differ from yours), then you’ve established a strong foundation for appreciating how their viewpoints may present some valid food-for-thought when those dreaded discussions about abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc. develop.
Listen first, then pray
No one enjoys being verbally attacked, let alone anticipates it. If your friend says something that you interpret as a personal affront, hold your tongue before responding. (Note: This is extremely difficult for the choleric to do! And melancholics will likely be deeply hurt but not necessarily say so right away.) Listen to what your friend is saying, and attempt to glean a deeper message beyond what you may have misunderstood to be a direct assault to your identity. This can be challenging if someone is mocking Catholicism, and you associate your faith with your inherent identity.
Friends don’t typically intend to hurt each other. Try to remind yourself of that when he or she is bantering ad infinitum about something about which you feel passionately the opposite. It’s important to separate one’s opinion of a topic from one’s opinion of you.
While you are listening, try to do so attentively and openly. Really make an effort to see your friend’s point of view before speculating or judging. This is where it’s best to offer a quick, silent prayer that the Holy Spirit may enter into this conversation and eradicate any sort of spirit of division or misunderstanding. Ask Him to speak to your heart: Should you respond or keep quiet, offering occasional nods of the head or other nonverbal cues of validation? If you feel you are called to respond, take the next step.
Respond with love, sometimes
If your friend is yapping about how antiquated the Catholic Church is, because everyone knows that using birth control or getting sterilized are healthy options for women’s health care, listen with your heart. While you may have just miscarried a baby or suffered from hidden infertility, and your friend is egregiously defending her right to stop having babies, don’t assume that she understands your cross…or the true stance of the Church.
Instead of proselytizing, try to educate. Start by offering examples of how contraception has contributed to the increased rates of reproductive cancers in women or how it’s rated by the World Health Organization as a Group 1 Carcinogen. If she responds defensively or disrespectfully, it’s okay to let her know that this is a very personal topic for you, and you’d be glad to revisit it some other time if she’s willing to hear your perspective.
Ultimately, we want to make our faith (and everything it entails) attractive to our friends. We don’t want to push them away with our severe religiosity or capitulate to gravely immoral opinions. We all commit sins of commission and omission, but it really is possible to keep our friendships without compromising our values by listening, praying, and responding in love.
As we grow in spiritual maturity, this process becomes less of a conscious hassle and more of a natural way of relating to others. When we respect ourselves and know who we are, while also respecting others and who they are, we are practicing the virtue of charity. Charity isn’t necessarily comfortable in practice, because sometimes we will have to enter into really difficult confrontations with our friends if we know they are living a sinful life. But with prudence, we will take a step back and both evaluate the past and consider the implications of our future conversations. Love doesn’t ask us to be rash. Instead, with patience and discernment through prayer, we can learn to balance candid honesty with attentive listening.
True friendships speak a heart language that supersedes the occasional disagreement. Irrespective of our differences, we can clash and still come together in mutual respect and admiration for each other.