In an effort to increase tolerance by helping people and cultures develop mutual understanding, the United Nations has deemed November 16 the International Day for Tolerance. While tolerance is a step in the right direction, I will explain on a smaller scale—the relationships we share in our lives—why we shouldn’t stop there.
In 2006, I co-authored the book Leveraging Diversity at Work with my friend and colleague, Sylvester Baugh. Much has happened since 2006. In some ways, we seem to have made strides; in other ways, we seem to have regressed. I, personally, am not an advocate for tolerance because, as the title of the article states, “Who wants to be tolerated?” However, it is a necessary step toward valuing and appreciating our differences.
Conflict Is the First Step On the “Relationshipping Stairway”
I developed a process I call the “Relationshipping Stairway.” It’s an ascending staircase with five steps. The first step represents conflict. People who come for counseling are often at this step with someone important in their lives. Anyone who has encountered conflict knows it is a painful place to be, and typically, the person believes they are stuck there until the other person changes. I know people who have waited their entire lives for someone else to change so they can be happy. This is a tragic place to live your life because the only thing keeping you stuck there is yourself and the lack of knowledge that you can take another step.
Tolerance Is Only Step Two
The second step is tolerance, which is the subject of this observance. Tolerance is one step up from conflict. It means you have made the conscious decision to stop fighting about whatever the conflict is. You are basically agreeing to turn a blind eye to the problem. However, toleration only happens when you’re aware of the conflict that you are tolerating, which puts you in a position to feel angry, frustrated, and resentful that you must tolerate this thing in your life. You are believing this situation should change so you no longer have to put up with it.
Many people on the tolerance step believe they are standing in acceptance, but when you still experience painful emotions about the issue, you have not achieved acceptance. You are still trying to get the other person to change. You hope if they see your suffering, then maybe they will realize they must change so you can stop being in pain. This is still the tolerance step. Admittedly, it’s a step up from conflict, but I don’t consider it a destination where you want to park yourself. It is, however, an essential step along the way to acceptance.
Understanding Is Important
Understanding is a far superior place to be beyond tolerance. Reaching understanding means that you have become curious, asked questions, educated yourself, and had experiences about a position that may be different from yours. You understand that people who have a different focus, are exposed to different information, and prioritize different values may see things differently. It doesn’t make them wrong, nor does it make you wrong. There is space to hold differing opinions without judging them as wrong. Understanding doesn’t mean agreement. It simply means that when you think about life from a different perspective, you can understand how that person feels. Once there is understanding, you can advance to the next step.
Acceptance Is a Better Place To Be
Acceptance is next; you will know you have reached this step when you are no longer experiencing painful emotions about the issue. The Serenity Prayer speaks about acceptance by linking the feeling of serenity with acceptance. With acceptance comes the realization that the thing you were in conflict over isn’t all that important. It’s possible to make room for two opposing points of view without having to be in conflict over them. The people in your life don’t have to hold the same perspective as you; they don’t have to do things your way. It’s very possible for people to coexist with different lifestyles, perspectives, opinions, and behaviors. Just because something is right for me doesn’t make it right for anyone else.
We all have one life to live. In that life, I have both the right and the responsibility to decide what is right and wrong for me based on my values and beliefs. I don’t have the right and responsibility to do what I perceive is right and wrong for anyone else based on my values and beliefs. Other people have their own values and beliefs and will live with the consequences of their choices—not me. This concept is helpful on the journey to acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you agree or offer support; it means that you stay free from conflict when someone does something different from you. This is because you understand and accept that everyone has the right to decide their own actions based on what they believe is best for them. You stop trying to change them and simply accept them where they are. When you do, you will then make your decisions about the kind of relationship you want to have with them, if any.
Appreciation Is At the Top
When you’ve reached the acceptance step and decide you want to stay in a relationship with that person, you may want to climb one more step to appreciation. This means that you examine the original issue that created the conflict and discover the ways in which that situation, disagreement or personality characteristic of someone else benefited you. You can grow in appreciation when you discover the flip side of the conflict known as the GLOW: the gifts, lessons, opportunities, and wisdom that situation afforded you.
Ascend from conflict to tolerance. Celebrate taking that step, but don’t stop there. Greater Mental Freedom™ awaits when you reach acceptance, and maybe even appreciation. Get climbing!