Margita Thompson, Senior VP, Public Affairs & Community Outreach, California Resources Corp.

We Can Agree to Disagree, Fight and Still Be Friends

I often introduce myself as a Latina Republican from Los Angeles who works in the oil and gas business. I also note that I’m an only child—a good thing because I am used to being alone. My opening usually gets laughs but it also makes a point. People can provide a minority voice through different slices of their identities. I’ve found that some of these slices are more socially acceptable to dismiss than others. 

Even as I revel in my “differentness,” I am immersed in groups, teams and yes, even friendships, with people who disagree with my point of view.  I don’t live in a bubble, instead I snuggle with porcupines. This takes skill, restraint and a whole lot of humor. It also raises the question: What is the role of a raging moderate in a world where people increasingly raise their profile by celebrating their intolerance?

The answer lies in embracing diverse perspectives and crossing borders. I grew up in San Diego and Tijuana, with half of my family on each side of the U.S. – Mexico border. Being bi-cultural has given me the competitive advantage of seeing different perspectives without the filter of initial judgment. Whatever our backgrounds, we can learn to tap into the unsung rhythm of a group—from close friends and family to community and nation—so that we can identify notes that are familiar when the song sounds different—and even when we want to change the beat. 

Change is all around us, but the innate ability to listen and respect others—the prerequisite for successfully negotiating change—is increasingly vilified. Read the news or look at Twitter and it appears that empathy is seen as weak, compromise as a betrayal of one’s tribe. Bringing a different point of view draws attacks so severe that people often respond by sublimating the part of their essence easiest to hide—their beliefs. For too many, it just feels safer to keep quiet. 

So, we need to encourage people by letting them know that if they are willing to speak, we are willing to listen. I always begin by assuming positive intent and try to remember that people may choose to shut down because they don’t want to fight. I’ve spoken many times and had people timidly come up to me afterwards and share their support. They come after the program because they are too apprehensive to do it in the bigger venue. When publicly tackling a hot topic, it helps me to focus my energy on the majority of people who are open-minded and not waste precious time on the relative few who proudly proclaim they aren’t. Curiosity is key, and can loosen people up to the joy of listening to different communities and understanding what they care about. The great irony about embracing diversity is that you can’t tune in if you’ve tuned others out. 

When I speak, I am a happy crusader for working families, upward economic mobility and an affordable quality of life. These are issues around which nearly everyone can unite, regardless of industry, ethnicity and political party. My favorite feedback from a speaking engagement goes like this: “I didn’t want to like you but I couldn’t help it.” That’s OK. More than OK, as liking someone with whom you disagree is the renewable energy of social progress. 

Sometimes what you initially perceive as disagreement is actually just something that feels unfamiliar. Part of the Latina competitive advantage is being comfortable with what feels different. Being able to navigate between cultures has more than boosted my career; It’s enriched my life. Building opportunities for upward economic mobility is a purpose that energizes me, and I know it energizes many people with life experiences and perspectives far different than mine. 

Starting from a point of shared values helps forge a sense of connection. Part of that stems from knowing I can still be a strong advocate for my point of view and respect people who share a passion about the same issues even if our respective approaches don’t mesh. We can recognize that the fight isn’t the goal and appreciate the power of each person in the grand task of finding solutions. And if you feel overwhelmed by opposing voices, please remember what the Dalai Lama said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”