How do you see those with whom you disagree?

“That person is completely unreasonable. Their values and philosophies are so different from mine that there is no way we could ever find common ground. Their words and actions are not genuine. Insert your own judgments here ____________.”

Let’s be honest…the above thoughts have crossed all of our minds at some point. We get a picture in our mind of a person, or a group of people, who are perceived to be so different from us that they come to represent “The Enemy.” The enemy image is often discussed in descriptions of war, where young men and women on a battlefield kill people they don’t know. They create an image of an enemy that is so bad and so dehumanized that they no longer need to treat that enemy with decency or reverence for life. An image has been created whereby the humans on the other side of the battlefield are now lesser than them.

War is an extreme example. Yet we often create enemy images of people we encounter in our daily lives who think and/or act differently from us. Our communities are home to a variety of personalities, races, genders, sexual orientations, classes, ethnicities, and any other categorization that you can think of. There will be people around you that you do not see eye-to-eye with. There will be people here who will downright piss you off. In short, at some point we all find ourselves in disagreement with the world or people around us.

You are then presented with a choice. How do you choose to portray those with whom you disagree? Do you choose to see them as enemies? As people so corrupt or unreasonable that they are not worth trying to connect with? Or do you choose to see them as humans, as people just like you, who have their own strategies in life, and their own feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, and love, just like you? Although it’s useful to think about those whom you disagree with in black-and-white terms (enemy or not?), shades of gray are far more common. We frequently categorize people, saying, “I love x, y, and z about them, and consider them a friend, but…” When you allow the thoughts that come after that “but” to remain, and choose not to work through them, then you hold an “enemy image.” There is a huge continuum that you may put people on, with varying severities of “buts.” The trick is not to fall into creating enemy images of folks, regardless of where they fall on the continuum (it is possible to create enemy images of people with whom you barely disagree with).

Some Examples

Here are some example scenarios of enemy images in the world, and also the strategies, feelings, and needs on the other side of the “battlefield” from those enemy images. See if you can relate to any part of these scenes.

Enemy Images
Other Explanations for the Same Situations
By serving food with meat in it, my host is ignoring the negative ecological impacts of meat production
By serving meat, my friend has access to a wider variety of guests (most folks in the US eat meat), allowing me opportunities to discuss environmental impacts with folks who otherwise may not be exposed to such discussions
My coworkers use NVC in a coercive way, in order to achieve pre-determined ends
Nobody in the workplace is a master of NVC. And/or, discussions to hold themselves accountable to agreed-upon values and philosophies can be seen as working to clarify intentions and agreement
My spouse always wants more and newer things. This is materialism. Where does it end?
A unique and diverse array of objects creates a sense of freedom for my spouse to explore areas of themselves they would otherwise not. How else might she meet those needs?
Anyone who enjoys video games or movies about way is condoning violence. I am not open to those people.
Media portraying violence can provide an opportunity to teach emotional regulation, when done well. These things can also be disciplined and skill-oriented. I wonder if these people have thought about it in this way?
My work schedule is far too hectic. There is no way my bosses care about my well-being. They just want to drain for everything I’m worth like a workhorse.
I wonder if my bosses are aware of how hard this schedule is on me… What are their motivations for scheduling in this way?

When we choose to believe judgments about other people or groups of people, we are creating separation. At that point of separation, a line has been drawn where we deny any possibility for connection. Ideas of separation, where people are just different from other people, are root causes of violence – verbal, social, and physical. Creating separation is intentional, and a choice…it means you are choosing to look at a situation in which you create ‘sides’ of people on one end of an argument. Reaching this point usually comes with resignation and anger, and a sense that you don’t even want to talk to that group/person anymore, because it won’t do any good.

If you find yourself at this point, consider your thoughts within this framework:

1. Validate your own experience/locate yourself – it’s okay to have the feelings you are having! Even if they are anger, frustration, or resentment…
2. Reflect on what’s important to you. What issues are you concerned about? What are your needs in this moment?
3. Consider the community/other person, and remember that there is a strategy behind their actions. What might their intentions be underneath the actions I am reacting to? Remember, anger is reactionary. Curiosity is one of the strongest antidotes against enemy imaging.
4. What possibilities and/or action steps exist for addressing what’s important to me, and to those I am concerned with?

As can be seen (hopefully!), what was an enemy image to one person can actually be met with a reasonable conversation…as long as that conversation is given the opportunity to happen. Folks may still disagree at the end of the discussion, but there is real possibility for understanding and shared action when those disagreements are met with compassion and empathy. Through NVC we learn that all humans have universal feelings and needs. My feelings and needs are relatable to your feelings and needs, allowing us to see ourselves in each other. If we choose to create an enemy image of someone we disagree with, we have lost an opportunity to connect. It simply closes us off to more opportunities. In closing that door to someone else – someone who is just like us – we have also closed a door into our own heart. Compassion and empathy are available to us, and ours to live into. That choice is ours.