03:01:10 pm on
Friday 22 Sep 2017

You're an Onion
Kate Harveston

Some time ago, I dropped a pint glass while washing it and it shattered into many pieces, as pint glasses do. The moment struck me as ironic because the glass bore the logo of the satirical news organization The Onion, along with the words “who are you to judge me.” It could have used another layer or two.

Complex beliefs feed poignant fairy tales.

The excellent metaphor, from Shrek, regarding the multi-dimensional nature of human belief systems makes a poignant fairy-tale moral. This is mostly because it’s true. When we oversimplify our fellow humans, we rob ourselves of the best chance to understand them.

Seek to understand others. This is the fifth chapter in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. If you were a military commander, would you launch a mission into dangerous enemy territory without knowledge of the land and the location of your objectives? Of course not, unless you were in a hurry to be relieved of your role.

The seek-first philosophy encourages us to get familiar with what someone thinks and believes before we judge or attempt to influence them. It sounds simple. Yet, it brings intense emotions into the picture and we all-too-often go from zero to judge without ever stopping to study our circumstances or the people involved.

Many people want to enact a change in the wake of the racially charged and otherwise controversial events of the last twelve months. In their fervor, they write off the opposition as sheep. The ostensible sheep, in fact, are sensible, thinking women and men with strong belief systems that place the emphasis where we would not.

Respect for individuality is a core value of the onion approach, but it’s possible to generalize about the hierarchy of beliefs and values that people hold. A recent article (see http://www.goodsoil.com/blog/how-to-understand-worldviews-im-an-onion-youre-an-onion) breaks down the topic rather well, even if, in this instance, the subject matter focuses on a religious audience.

The onion, as a whole, is the worldview of any one person. That is the "a perspective through which he or she sees and interprets life." As we begin to know an individual, we learn at first about those topics at the outermost layer, which is less sensitive and more susceptible to change.

Toward the core of the onion are "core beliefs."

These are ideas that inform and form how any man or woman lives her or his life. They might be malleable in the formative years, but as they mature, they solidify. For an adult, it could take a crisis to shake these beliefs.

Paul McCartney summed up the maturing of core beliefs, well, in the lyrics of “Live and Let Die.” “When you were young,” he wrote, “and your heart was an open book, you used to say live and live. But, if this ever changing world, in which we live, makes you give in and cry; [you] say live and let die.”

There's no easier way for people to bond than through commiseration. That's why layer five of the onion is human commonalities. Entry conversations tend to take place when two people realize the same stimulus affects each of them the same way. Often the stimulus is negative, but it need not be so.

From there, we begin to build the bonds that lead to deeper understanding. This involves investigative questions. What can we know of behavioral patterns, personal choices and internalized values? A great deal, it seems.

Learning of these layers is progressive. Don’t begin a conversation by prying into what someone has deeply internalised. Develop some rapport by starting with personal habits and finding some common ground, and you’re more likely to make progress.

The difference between internalised values and core beliefs is where the conflicts we see today are decided. An example of a core belief might be that it’s best to do what’s right. This isn't a matter of facts. Right and wrong are assumed to exist and, based on how the outer layers take shape our behaviour should adhere to this belief consistently.

In a conversation with someone whose beliefs differ from yours, the best way to expose what those internalized values is, again, to develop rapport. When we invest time and energy into understanding someone, they feel less threatened, when it comes to discussing sensitive matters.

Mutual respect is vital for such a conversation to take place, but don't be surprised if you encounter some armor when high-profile topics are raised. When a person is under confident in their values, they can use things like faith, tradition and fear to prop them up.

Empathy is the key to understanding.

If you can show someone where and why those deep-seated values don't align with their core beliefs, they might be closer than you think to understanding a different perspective. It's not a sure thing. There's no perfect strategy, but you'll get better results than violence and yelling every time.


Kate Harveston is a US political writer from Pennsylvania. She graduated from Mansfield University, a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, and is interested in anything related to politics, law and culture, especially how these areas intersect. Harveston writes on a variety of topics, but she is especially interested in social change and human rights. When not writing, Kate Harveston curls up with a book or hikes the wilderness in a quest for inspiration. Visit her blog, Only Slightly Biased.

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