Two different people recently contacted me for my advice on virtually identical situations that arose in the wake of California’s decision to solemnize same-gender relationships.
One woman was concerned about her job in a pro-gay workplace because a friend and co-worker had been disappointed with her inadequately enthusiastic response to his announcement that he and his lover were driving to California to get married. She wanted help expressing her real love for this man while still standing firm in her beliefs.
Another man’s company had created a pro-gay workplace initiative and then solicited employee feedback on it. He, too, was concerned about his job, but he also felt compelled to say something consistent with his conservative Christian beliefs.
Since I expect such difficulties to become far more common, I’ll share with you the principles I advised them to use.
Principle 1: Apologize in advance.
In confrontation, people mistakenly think that playing the “big fish” role will portray strength, perhaps even intimidating the other. In reality, humility best expresses strength, whereas bluster generally indicates weakness. Insecure people always get this backwards. Only the strong can control themselves enough to take the humble approach, and there is no more humble yet powerful thing to do than apologizing at the outset.
Principle 2: Say it before they do.
Generally, we try to hide anything that makes us or our position look weak. Not only is this dishonest, but such things tend to come out anyhow, and it’s always better to control the release of information than to be caught by it. Besides, it’s very disarming to have someone plainly divulge the worst about themselves. So admit anything you’re tempted to conceal, such as your religion, your personal biases, and especially your worst fears. Admitting feared reactions can often prevent them because people dislike being predictable.
Principle 3: Get permission.
Whenever you anticipate a negative reaction, soliciting permission to proceed means the other person has agreed to share responsibility for whatever difficulties ensue. Luckily, this is the easiest one of all because almost no one declines. Curiosity virtually compels their consent.
Principle 4: Be hurt, not angry.
Our instinct for confrontation is to be angry, sarcastic, and harsh. Such tactics will usually make the situation worse. Whoever is perceived as the victim or most hurt gets the most sympathy, regardless of the legitimacy of their pain. Just consider how much more ground homosexuals have gained by displaying hurt at things they oppose than by displaying fury at them. The paradox is that by trying to be tough (usually through anger) you suffer marginalization, whereas by allowing yourself to look weak (usually through sadness) you get influence.
The best way to show hurt in this case is by referencing a pain your audience already understands: that of being forced to be in the closet. Just as gays are coming out of the closet, moral conservatives feel like we’re being forced into it. The social consequences are exactly parallel, except that for us they are rising whereas for gays they are receding. Though some in the pro-gay culture celebrate this, most who have felt this anxiety will recoil at the idea of imposing what they have suffered on others.
Principle 5: Make relationship your main goal.
Winning is nice, but relationships matter more than winning. Fortunately, the best way to have a chance of winning is by cultivating relationships and the influence that comes with them. Real relationships require honesty, vulnerability, and the sort of respect which realizes that friendship cannot be conditional upon the universal acquiescence of the other person to my values. This principle obviously goes both ways.
Example of applying these principles.
“I have something really important I want to talk about with you, but I’m worried that it’s going to offend you. If that happens, I’m very sorry, but do you want me to be honest with you, even if you might get angry?”
“Of course, what is it?”
“First, I want you to know how much I care about you, and that’s why it makes me really uncomfortable that we have to have a discussion about gay issues at all. But here’s what you don’t realize about me. Honestly, gay sex grosses me out. But it’s more serious than just that. I am a deeply religious person, and my religious tradition strongly disapproves of this behavior. Yet recently I feel like my religious beliefs are being attacked and I’m being pressured to hide them from you.
"I feel like I can’t be honest about who I am because of the hostility I feel from others for what I believe. And because I’m worried that saying all of this might jeopardize our friendship or even cost me my job, I’m very reluctant to be honest even with you about who I am. If this fear of being scared to express my real identity is what you’ve experienced for your sexual orientation, then I’m so very sorry you’ve had to suffer such an awful thing.
"But I’m telling you this because I hope that you’re willing to respect my beliefs just like you want me to respect yours. The only way for us to have a meaningful relationship is if we can be truly open and honest with each other, especially when we disagree, and I want that more than anything. I hope you’re willing to accept me while knowing what I believe just like I’m willing to accept you while knowing what you do.”
This may not always work. But using these principles puts you in the best position to succeed, with one caveat. You must be sincere in your use of them. If you exaggerate for effect, you will be a liar, and it will probably won’t work for you anyway. Remember, only the truly strong can afford to appear weak.
*This article first published on July 24, 2008.