In these times of heightened anxiety, one never knows if a disagreement will escalate into conflict. There is wide variation in how humans react to differences. Some people can acknowledge the differences they have with others while also being interested in the other’s beliefs, opinions and principles. Some people react defensively or go on the offensive. These different ways of responding to differences correlate with Dr. Murray Bowen’s scale of differentiation.
The theoretical scale of differentiation identifies one’s basic level of self and one’s functional level. Individuals at the lower end of the scale are susceptible to automatic ways of defending beliefs or attacking the beliefs of others. They struggle to separate their feelings from their thinking and are more threatened when others feel, think or act differently. Individuals at the higher end of the scale can separate their feelings from thinking. While they may disagree or feel uncomfortable with the beliefs of another person, they put their energy into responding with “I” positions that articulate their best thinking. Less energy goes into changing the thinking, feelings or actions of others. All of us lineup somewhere on this scale of differentiation.
One can always improve their level on the scale of differentiation. As a pastor, I typically encounter people in the congregation who think differently than I do about a wide variety of topics. I can sometimes “feel” my reactive self wanting to attack or defend. I can get stuck when I want to attack the other person’s beliefs (which always leaves me regretting my words) or when I say nothing in response and just listen (which always leaves me feeling frustrated and defeated). Fortunately, there is a third way to respond.
This third way of engaging differences begins with an effort to separate feelings from thinking. The clearer one can think about a topic, the less likely they are to react automatically from their feelings. The feeling response is triggered by a perceived fear. As one works to separate feelings from thinking, one can think differently. The need to attack or defend dissipates. This effort of self-regulation makes one freer to learn about the other’s ideas, beliefs and principles. One can observe, become more curious and ask questions. It’s even possible to learn something new that may inform the way one thinks. At the same time, one can be a resource for the thinking of others. When one is working on this third way, there is no need to defend self or attack others.