How to Agree to Disagree: Restructuring Negative Thinking this Ramadan

By: Br. Abdulrehman Abdulrehman

Most civilized societies pride themselves on their ability to learn from the mistakes of previous societies. Even within societies there are individuals who are determined to pursue/achieve self-improvement. They strive to avoid the mistakes made by not only those before them, but those around them, to improve their present lives, and also their futures. I remember, as a child in this community, the youth watching community meetings deteriorate to petty squabbles and at times, physical violence. To children at that time, the flaws in the process of these meetings seem so clear. Yet, interestingly, as adults we seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes we had previously laughed at.

Although the source for disagreements may vary, a common thread that runs through these conflicts is the inability to agree to disagree. Many will argue the certainty of their position, without being aware of the validity of another perspective. Although once a primary contributor to our growth as a global community, the coexistence of diverse thought (even within Islamic perspectives) has become difficult for many to withstand, each of us an island arguing the validity of a sole/single point of view.

Islamic scholars denote a variety of issues that have contributed to this phenomenon of disintegration of unification in our communities. This ranges from addressing the basics of adaab and Islamic etiquette in dealing with conflict and disagreement, to our levels of imaan and how that affects our ability to communicate well with each other. Needless to say, the issue identified is that in order for us to change a community, we need to start with a change in ourselves.

From the study of psychology, we know that the way we think can alter the way we see life, and hence how we behave. This includes the ways in which we see each other, interpret the behaviours of others, and the ways in which we respond to them. The perspectives we hold in life are some of the most influential predictors to our behaviours and our feelings. Learning to handle conflict better, and to learn how to agree to disagree, is dependent on us changing our perspectives to something more functional. Psychologists have identified numerous distortions in thinking that negatively influence our mood, behaviour, and hence dealings with others. Noted below are some of these distortions in thinking for us to consider, which may assist us in positively changing our perspectives, and hopefully allow us to better deal with conflict.

Emotional Reasoning: One of the most common distortions in thinking is that of emotional reasoning. This occurs when we use our feelings as a gauge on reality, when in fact, our feelings are a reflection of our interpretation, rather than the absolute truth. It is worse when we use these feelings as a guide to making decisions. If our interpretations are incorrect, the outcome can be disastrous.

Labelling: Labelling occurs when we make assumptions about people, and label them with a title or quality we’ve assumed about them. If we are quick to assume things about a person or a situation, it leaves us less able to see other things about them or the situation that are crucial to the understanding of them. This also applies to labelling ourselves. If we are set on labelling ourselves, we assume we are doing everything to live up to that label, when in fact, we may not be. Labelling can make us complacent in the way in which we see ourselves and others.

All or Nothing Thinking: This occurs when we think of people, situations, or anything for that matter, in absolute terms, like “always”, “every” or “never”. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. If we don’t leave room to see the gray (versus black or white), we can often blind ourselves to what may actually be happening.

Overgeneralization: Similar to the above, overgeneralization occurs when we take isolated cases and use them to make wide and sweeping generalizations.

Mental Filter: At times, we can filter out important pieces of information about people or a situation. When we use a mental filter, we focus exclusively on a negative and upsetting detail of something or someone, ignoring many other components, which may be very positive.

Jumping to Conclusions: This type of thinking occurs when we assume a negative outcome, even when there is little to no evidence to support it. There are two types of this distortion.

  • Mind Reading: when we assume to know the intentions of others.
  • Fortune Telling: when we predict how things will occur, before they even happen.

If we ignore the distortions in thinking noted above, our faults in thinking can not only lead to conflict with others, but also negatively affect our own personalities. Furthermore, ignoring them can also lead to a false sense of validation of negative beliefs. For example, a distortion in thinking can influence the way in which we deal with others, and in turn have them react negatively toward us, fulfilling our original negative (and possibly incorrect) perception of them. This highlights our need to be vigilant in our thoughts and ever mindful of the distortions that can occur.

The distortions outlined above are very common to mankind. In fact, many of you will recognize that these concepts mirror what we are taught in our faith, and that improving these distortions, would in fact assist us in gaining patience and increasing the quality of our personalities. The patience derived from restructuring negative thoughts, allows us a mindfulness that can assist us in tolerating disagreement and better allow us to come to a resolution. After all, Allah is with those who are patient.

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