Sense & Sensitivity by Harriette Cole

Reader Should Feel Free to Challenge Elder

DEAR HARRIETTE: This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I used the day off to volunteer. I went to an event that invited elderly civil rights activists from all over the country. I had the opportunity to sit next to a woman who began protesting racism at age 10. While talking to her, she revealed that she didn’t support women’s rights or LGBTQ rights, and she voted for a candidate who shared her same views this election.

I was stunned; I admire her for her activism, yet I disagree with her on so many other topics. I wanted to challenge some of her opinions, but I was taught to never talk back to my elders. Could I have pressed her more on why some topics mattered to her, but not the others? -- Respectful Youngster, Boston

DEAR RESPECTFUL YOUNGSTER: Too bad you didn’t engage this woman more to learn more deeply about her views. The way to do it is to ask questions. Ask lots of questions so that you get greater insight into what the elder thinks. The challenging component could be offered through the framing of questions, delivered in a neutral tone so that you continue to speak respectfully even as you work to get perspective on why the elder draws the line on some issues and not others. This strategy for gleaning information, by the way, is helpful with peers as well.

You are more likely to get honest, open answers about how people think when they feel that they are being heard and that their comments are welcome. This doesn’t mean you must agree with them, but being open to receiving them creates space for them to be offered.