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Tolerance or Acceptance: What are you communicating?

Growing up, I often heard my parents preach the importance of demonstrating tolerance for all who might be different than me – different in background, politics, race, beliefs, etc.  We just experienced the most tumultuous and polarizing year in politics that any of us can remember and it ended in a result that not many expected.  There are protests, arguments, and ideological battles occurring everywhere.  All of this makes me think again about the word:  tolerance.

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Is ‘tolerance’ what we are striving for or does the answer lie in ‘acceptance’?  I ran into a neighbor this week who is a high school teacher and we talked about the distinction between these two words.  He too said he was taught to be tolerant by his parents.  I posed the question: “Do you like to be tolerated?” He smiled and agreed that did not exactly sound appealing.  I asked, “Would you rather be accepted?”  He shared that each year he begins with a group of new students who clearly tolerate him but by the end of the year when trust has been built he says they accept him.  That acceptance fosters dialogue, collaboration and even friendship.

Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, Ph.D. shared a way to define acceptance:

“Accepting people does not itself mean agreeing with them, approving of them, waiving your own rights, or downplaying their impact upon you. You can still take appropriate actions to protect or support yourself or others. Or you can simply let people be. Either way, you accept the reality of the other person. You may not like it, you may not prefer it, you may feel sad or angry about it, but at a deeper level, you are at peace with it. That alone is a blessing. And sometimes, your shift to acceptance can help things get better.”

At home, at work, and in social situations, when you recognize you are stuck in conflict or feeling frustrated you likely opt to either dismiss or argue with the other person, tolerate them, or accept them. Which is more likely to reap the best results?  Acceptance is the path that will likely bear the most fruitful outcomes.

No matter what side of the political divide you found yourself on and after the dust settles a bit we can benefit from listening more and learning from each other.  If you are struggling to find your bearings after this election or you’ve had on-going conflict with colleagues at work take time to enter the acceptance zone by:

  • Looking for the positive points of agreement – you may have to dig deep but they are likely there.
  • Thinking before you speak – are you leading with judgment or understanding?
  • Being present – avoid focusing on what happened in the past and focus on how to move forward now.
  • Wiggle into their shoes – can you see the world through their eyes?
  • Asking questions – be curious and seek first to understand.

I write this today as I need this counsel and reminder myself.  Acceptance is aspirational.  When we feel passionately about our point of view it is a mighty challenge to set aside our beliefs and hear the other party out.  But if we do, just maybe, we can move forward together.