I lived in South Africa during the apartheid era. As the son of a Canadian diplomat, I could never understand how white South Africans could support a clearly abhorrent and criminal regime. Could they not see how racist they were? Did they have no sense of human rights and dignity? How could they stubbornly hold on to an ideology that died over 100 years ago?
One day I sat down with a classmate of mine – a ‘liberal-minded’ Afrikaner – who passionately defended his people as a kind but misguided race. He patiently explained that Afrikaners truly believed that they were God’s ‘chosen people’. No other group qualified: not Africans; not Indians; not even Englishmen. Only Afrikaners. Fanatical in their ‘covenant’ with God, they set about creating a society that would protect and encourage their culture and race. Everything they had done since was in the single-minded execution of that holy quest.
To be honest, I still don’t understand how one makes the jump from there to the brutality of apartheid, but – begrudgingly – I did start to understand why Afrikaners were so fervent and passionate about defending their regime.
What I had learned was that I didn’t have to agree with a viewpoint to understand it.
As communications professionals we are often confronted with opinions that radically differ from our own. The easiest (and most often travelled) path is to dismiss these critics as crazy or ill informed and assume that society will similarly marginalize them. Sadly, the easy route is often a recipe for disaster.
Success, especially in the field of crisis communications, depends on looking at an issue from every viewpoint, however fanciful. Try to understand why an audience holds a particular perspective, and what emotion may be driving their bias. Acknowledge their right to their opinion and work to better inform them – not deny them.
In some cases, you may find that disengagement still is the best policy. But by seeing your opponent’s viewpoint, you may find common ground – or at least agree on a way to peacefully cohabitate.