4 steps to handle a differing viewpoint

March 30, 2020
How to handle a differing viewpoint

How to handle a differing viewpoint?

Li Wenliang

Li Wenliang was a Chinese ophthalmologist. A physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, Li warned his colleagues in December 2019 about a possible outbreak of an illness that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome, later acknowledged as COVID-19. He became a whistleblower when his warnings were later shared publicly.

However, Li’s warning was not to the liking of the ‘system’. He was summoned to the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan and made to sign a statement in which he was accused of making false statements that disturbed the public order.

Li Wenliang died on Feb 7, 2020, of the same illness that he was warning the world about.

Differing viewpoints

While Li’s case could be an extreme representation of my argument in this post, isn’t it true that most of us dislike viewpoints or opinions that do not sound like our own?

Isn’t it true that most conflicts whether at home or at work or between communities or political parties or even between nations stem from this ‘difference of opinion’? The reaction to such a ‘difference of opinion’ determines the extent of the conflict – from dropping expletives to dropping bombs, from ignoring someone to treating someone with ignominy.

Although in our daily life, the differences of opinions that we are exposed to may not be a matter of life and death, we do experience caustic reactions. Whether it is in a Whatsapp group chat or at a meeting of the Residents Welfare Association or at a leadership meeting at work or at a public gathering, a difference of opinion could evoke strong responses.

In a way, as an author, I am always open to this risk – not everything I write will be liked by my readers. But is writing ‘universally likeable articles’ my objective? Is it even possible? To write something that everyone will like? You see where I am going with this argument, don’t you?

Friends and foes

At the other end of the spectrum, we realize that those we call as our friends most likely share our viewpoint or opinion on matters critical to us. It means the following:

The thicker the friendship, the better the alignment in our opinions. Therefore, it seems that the difference between a friend and a foe is only the extent of the difference of opinion.

Obedience is not an alternative

This risk of the ‘system’ not liking an opinion makes people fall in line. They end up becoming obedient – a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’. Read my post on this.

The ‘system’ in our lives

Li Wenliang’s viewpoint was not liked by the ‘system’. In the context of this post, the ‘system’ is someone or a group of people (an entity). This ‘someone’ or this entity can pass judgment on our viewpoint. While Li Wenliang’s work was judged by the ‘system’ – in this case, the Chinese Government – such ‘systems’ exist in our world too.

Our ‘systems’ could be our parents, teachers, co-workers, supervisor, neighbors, community, political party or Government. We are also a ‘system’ to someone else.

What should the ‘system’ ideally do?

The ‘system’ needs to do the following to handle a differing viewpoint, maybe in the same order:

  1. Listen: The least the ‘system’ can do is to listen with an open mind. A viewpoint is a perspective and a different viewpoint is a different perspective.
  2. Appreciate: The ‘system’ needs to appreciate the fact that there could be a viewpoint different from the viewpoint of the ‘system’. Such appreciation has been the basis for reconciliations, rapprochements, and society’s progress whether through new ideas, discoveries or inventions.
  3. Agree, Disagree or Agree to Disagree: The ‘system’ has a choice – to agree, disagree or agree to disagree.
  4. Protect the right to express a viewpoint: The ‘system’ needs to send out a strong signal that the right to express a viewpoint is sacrosanct.

Easier said than done

Why are the above 4 steps so difficult? It is because the ‘system’ we are referring to here is not a piece of machinery sans emotions. This ‘system’ is people like us – it has emotions!

When I look back at my own life, I have evolved from someone who took a rigid stance on matters to someone who adopts a more fluid approach now. As my horizon expanded owing to my own life experiences, I have come to realize that there is scope to hold different perspectives and balance them. Life is not about View A or View B but more about being able to balance them and find an ‘and’ instead of an ‘or’.

Self-awareness & practice

It takes a lot of self-awareness and practice to handle a differing viewpoint. When the stakes are high, it become more difficult. Each time we evolve to get better. Should we hold on to our viewpoint or let go? Should we give in or give up? Sometimes, it is about losing the battles to win the war. It is critical to be seized of the end objective. Sometimes it is the relationship that is at stake. For instance, as a parent of a grown-up child, stretching an argument could lead to a dilemma: whether holding on to our stance is more important than preserving the relationship. A state of peace that preserves the relationship makes all the effort worth it. And the journey continues.

Given that the ‘system’ has emotions, it is important to also learn the tact of expressing one’s view in a way that is effective. That calls for a separate post…later.

PS: By the way, a subsequent Chinese official inquiry exonerated Li Wenliang and the Communist Party formally offered a “solemn apology” to his family and revoked its admonishment of him. The ‘system’ responded but the response came in too late…


What do you think about this post? I am keen to know your viewpoint even if it is different. Write to me at [email protected].

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