What’s “teachable” about Obama’s beer meeting?

August 1, 2009

Let’s face it – Obama got himself in a jam.  He spoke on national TV about matters relating to a local community, local police, and race relations.  Any one of those topics is dangerous to speak about, let alone all three at once.  To top it all off, he spoke without knowing all the facts.  Admitting to not knowing all the facts and then continuing to form opinions about the situation doesn’t exempt you from responsibility.  The only bonus points we can award Obama is for the guts to say something so bold (some call it stupid?) on national TV.

Wait, there’s more bad news.  Obama acted stupidly by saying that the  “police acted stupidly.”  Stupid is a harsh word that has no upside or chance to be interpreted in a positive light.  Add stupid in front of anything, and it’s going to be taken negatively.  If someone told you that you made a “stupid decision,” your first reaction is to get defensive.  If that same person told you that you could have acted “differently” or in a “better way,” your reaction will be less defensive.  Words matter.  The details matter.

But… let’s put all this childish analysis aside.  Besides the fact that Obama goofed (for the reasons mentioned above), there’s something powerful in what transpired as a result of this entire fiasco.  Obama personally called both parties (Professor Gates and Officer Crowley) and invited them to a beer at the White House.  Yes, he had to.  He had to in order to save himself and ever-so-cleverly do something about the mistakes he made (again, mentioned above).  But, in calling both parties and holding a casual meeting, he did something else that’s “teachable.”

Obama showed how two parties that were at polar opposites of each other just one week ago can get together in a peaceful manner and hold dialogue.  He showed the world how grown ups should act when they have disagreements.  It can happen.  It did happen.  And what was the outcome?

The outcome wasn’t some “It’s a small world” dance or “We are the world” reconciliation between both parties.  In fact, both sides still completely disagreed with each other after the beer.  The outcome, instead, was the lesson that it’s okay to disagree. Both parties agreed to disagree in a civil and grown-up manner.

What a novel idea: it’s okay to disagree.  Wait… it’s okay to disagree?  Then how do I convince others to do what I’m doing?  How do I convince others that I’m right?

The short answer: you don’t.  You can’t.  All you can do is show your side of the story.  Then, it’s up to the other side to rationalize it, agree or disagree with it, and follow or not follow it.

And here’s the secret: 90% of the battle in any disagreement is getting both sides together.

The rest is easy because most people are intrinsically good by nature and want to have mutual respect for each other.  The hard part is putting aside ego, having the courage to approach each other directly instead of using some third party to send messages through, and having the intellectual maturity to accept another “right” opinion.

There isn’t always one right answer.  Read the poll findings in the 4th to last paragraph in Donna Brazile’s article here, and you’ll understand.  Both parties are right in their own way.  Each party brings their own experiences, preconditions, and stereotypes to the situation.  It’s wrong to do so, but guess what – it always happens.  And it always will.  So why fight over it?  Instead, just swallow your ego, talk directly with the person(s) you’re in disagreement with, and agree to disagree if you still can’t come to one conclusion.  But understand that it’s okay to disagree. We don’t always have to come out of a discussion as the “winner” or the person who was able to convince or transform the other side.  Life isn’t black and white; it’s the entire spectrum of colors between those two.  Let’s not live in monochrome.

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