Respecting Differences

A client’s husband wanted to know about some of my beliefs, as I was advising his wife, and he did not want me to misguide her somehow. This led to an interesting discussion about the frequently underappreciated value of respecting one another’s differing beliefs.

Lately it seems that there is a great deal of intolerance in our society of the differences between people. I don’t know whether this is actually getting worse or not, but if one looks at the political landscape in the last few years, it does seem so to me. There is so much polarization, in politics, in religion, and in opinions of who’s right and who’s wrong. So often, we see people being completely hostile to someone with different opinions. If someone doesn’t have the same political opinions, they are labeled wrong, bad, or stupid. Some believe that their religion is the only true religion, and all others are “wrong”. Taken to extremes, and it is all too often taken to extremes, this leads to annihilating those who have the “wrong” religion. I guess I just don’t believe that’s what God had in mind.

One of the things that I appreciate about the work of my profession is that it’s not necessary that I have the same beliefs or opinions that my client does. I can respect their view of the world and honor it in our work together. One of the most important aspects of psychology is the importance of listening to, and respecting each other. There is value in listening to one another and trying to understand. Communication and understanding build relationships and cooperation. Labeling and polarizing do the opposite. Of course, most of us think that we are right in how we see things. (This does seem to keep coming up in my columns, doesn’t it?)

One of the most invigorating conversations I ever had was with my grandfather, back when I was a college student. We were at a family gathering, and most of my family would have described my grandfather as an extreme right wing “nut”. He was an active member of the John Birch Society. I was a college student in the seventies. We couldn’t have been much further apart in our political beliefs at the time. We found ourselves sitting together, somewhat apart from the rest of the group, and he expressed his concern that most of my college professors were “communists”. (Communists were the big threat back then, not Al Queda). I was surprised that he believed this, and told him I really didn’t think this was so. He, in turn, was surprised to hear that my professors weren’t filling me with communist propaganda. This was the beginning of one of the most interesting conversations I ever had. We talked, listened to each other, and asked each other questions. Voices were never raised, names were not called. Respect was maintained. (Relatives kept glancing sideways, wondering what on earth we were talking about for so long.)

It is refreshing to talk with someone who holds differing opinions and beliefs than our own. I think this is happening less, and we are experiencing more polarization, to the detriment of everyone. Democracy is based on the freedom to have and express our beliefs and opinions. And to allow others to express their beliefs and opinions. This should not resemble a dog fight or a blood bath.

So, my advice for this month is to try talking – and listening – to someone who sees the world differently than you do in some way. Do it with respect. If we all do this, the world will be a better place. Thanks for letting me have my say this month.

Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at

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