How to Move from Intolerance to Tolerance, and More

“It is not for me to judge another man’s life. I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For myself, alone.”
― Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

As our world expands in work and social experiences, as well as ever-increasing exposure to media and technology, we encounter many different kinds of people with diverse personalities, values, attitudes and behaviors. We are bound to meet people with whom we at least disagree, and at most have great difficulty tolerating. The source of the difference can be anything from personality to politics, religion and/or philosophy of life, which get expressed in conversations, actions, and judgments.

How we react to and interact with these differences depends on our comfort with ourselves, our relationships, our success-or lack of- at work, at home, and in our communities. The outcome of these experiences will affect our stress levels, our comfort levels, our self-worth and our peace of mind. It is a part of human nature to have a preference to interact with those who have similar traits or values “Birds of a feather flock together.” We feel more at ease, we feel validated, and it creates a comfortable familiarity.

As long as we interact with others, we will inevitably be faced with difficult situations, and what to do about them, anything from how to handle them to whether or not to continue the relationship. What we decide to do will be influenced by our attitude, skill in handling the situation, perspective and level of tolerance —or intolerance.

Definition of intolerance: unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect opinions or beliefs contrary to one’s own

Some areas where we may feel intolerant of views or practices of others—check the ones that apply to you:
__Community– including neighbors and local organizations, governance
__Educational institutions
__Social groups
__Work—organizational culture and/or bosses, peers
__Extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws
__Immediate family—spouse, children, parents
__Other (specify)__________________________________

One factor to take into consideration: is the situation you are feeling intolerant of something that tangibly affects your daily life? This might include the school you choose, your job, friendships, the groups you belong to, and your family relationships. Other areas such as politics, religion, or community organizations you don’t belong to, can generate discomfort or strong emotions. You have a choice as to what extent you actually participate with these groups— by an active commitment of time and energy, or not—which will have a less tangible effect on your daily life.

This article will focus on our own immediate lives, in areas where we regularly and personally engage with others (does not include social media).

Give some thought to the following questions—it’s very helpful to write your responses down:

  1. To what extent does your discomfort come from values and practices that are very different from your own?
  2. To what extent does your discomfort come from simply being unfamiliar with the behaviors or ideas others have?
  3. How important is it to you to convince the other person/organization to see your perspective? (rate yourself on a scale from 0-5 on each situation this applies to)
  4. What effect does a given situation have on your sense of well-being, comfort and/or confidence? How important is it that your values or ideas be validated by others?
  5. How do you feel about disagreements in general? Do you feel discomfort, anger, frustration, uncertainty or some other unpleasant emotion? Or do you feel charged up and challenged?

While you may have a solid and healthy reason for holding and practicing the values you do, it doesn’t mean that those values are right and doable for others. A big part of intolerance is the conviction your values will be good for others, and may motivate you to try to influence or convert others’ thinking and behavior. If you’ve tried to do this, you likely have found this leads to frustration, emotional injury or an end to the relationship.

When you seek to change others, do you give any thought to what you might want or need to change in yourself? The change doesn’t mean giving up your values, it means making changes in your attitude, perspective, and/or behavior towards others when you feel intolerant.

Definition of tolerance: When you practice tolerance, you accept another’s ideas and beliefs. even if you disagree or find them nonsensical — you display tolerance. Another aspect to this definition: capacity to endure pain or hardship

The concept of “tolerance” is what is most commonly encouraged as a form of easing tensions or other unproductive behaviors. That may be the first step. For many however, tolerance still binds us to feelings of resentment, anger, or frustration. It often comes off as cordial behavior, but not authentic. While this may be a step in the right direction, it likely won’t make you feel a whole lot better.

The best way to make peace with yourself and others, is to reach a place of acceptance. Acceptance in this context means “My values are worthwhile, valid and meaningful to me. I don’t need to have others agree with me—or ‘see the light’ to know this.” Instead of debating or trying to convince others, you are better off just listening to them, without comment or rebuttal—you put aside judgments and genuinely attempt to learn where they are coming from. This does not require you to agree or approve of their views. It means you are willing to accept that their perspective works for them in some way. You also need to recognize no matter how convincing and valid your position is, you are very unlikely to change them, just as their attempts to convince you is unlikely to change you!

I have seen others use this approach, and I have also, and am very surprised by what happens. With little exception, the other person relaxes, you relax, the tension between you and the other person eases, and they like you better! It may be the first time the other person has felt someone Is really interested in what they have to say, and they feel heard. It often eliminates the need for them to hear agreement. If they continue to push for agreement, you just need to continue listening in a way that shows genuine interest and little else. Sooner or later, once the other person feels that non-judgmental interest is genuine, the tension will dissipate.

The most effective way to do this is:

  1. Give the other person your undivided/undistracted attention.
  2. Ask open-ended questions that encourage them to more fully describe their position, without simply responding with a yes or no. You need to come from a place of genuine curiosity.
  3. Periodically repeat, summarize or paraphrase what they’ve said to indicate you want to fully understand (called “Active Listening”). It gives them the opportunity to clarify what they’ve said, and to feel heard. It helps build rapport, and creates “emotional clearance” where they don’t feel the need to continue advocating their position.
  4. Refrain from launching into your views when you disagree, even if you’ve given them lots of time to express themselves. It sends a mixed message.
  5. This process generates respect, eases tension, and may even make the other person rethink their own position or ask to hear yours. Even if this doesn’t happen, it produces a better outcome than debating.
  6. Remember just because you are listening without expressing your own views, doesn’t mean you are agreeing or accepting their position. You are simply acknowledging that what they express is true for them.

Consider experimenting by starting with something easier for you—an Issue you may disagree with, but not necessarily have strong feelings about.

Acceptance expands our world, eases our stress, and connects us to others. Intolerance causes us to hold on to unpleasant feelings, to withdraw, and isolates us from humanity.

“In order to have faith in one’s own path, he does not need to prove that someone else’s path is wrong.”
― Paulo Coelho, Warrior of the Light

“The responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.”
–George Eliot

Feel free to share this with anyone you think might find it worthwhile.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject.