Recently the Pew Research Center published a report showing that Americans are more politically divided than any time since they started tracking such data in 1994. Our country has survived greater divisions than we now see: abortion, civil rights, slavery, and federalism.
Increasingly, at least anecdotally, it appears that people are fed up with divisions and conflict. At some level both liberals and conservatives find themselves wanting to check out. My readers challenged me to write this article to find a path forward.
Tempting as it may be to check out, the things that divide Americans are important issues. Gun safety is a critical issue with 35,000 people dying from gun deaths every year. Those on the left would like to reduce the availability of guns. Those on the right see more guns as the key to safety. That’s a pretty big disagreement on a topic that matters.
Climate change threatens to destabilize the planet while some continue to argue that it isn’t anthropogenic or even that it isn’t happening at all. And this issue doesn’t just impact America; what we do here impacts the entire planet. We need a process by which we can talk about this without completely talking past one another.
The social safety net helps millions of Americans avoid death, despair or homelessness each year but millions of others slip through the cracks. One sure way to avoid finding solutions is to not talk about the problems.
To figure out how we can have a productive discussion that respects people more than policies I had to ask experts because I’m not good at this. I’m as prone to getting emotional as anyone else but like my readers, I want to find a way to have these conversations constructively.
Cheryl Snapp Conner, CEO of Snapp Conner PR and a regular Forbes contributor approaches communications professionally. She helps businesses formulate messaging in these fraught times with an eye toward building audiences and customers.
She suggests you start by highlighting your common ground and acknowledge them for the things you may admire about them: awareness, passion, civic engagement. Only then does she suggest delving into the areas of disagreement.
Dr. Paul Jenkins, a professional psychologist and author of Pathological Positivity offers this advice: “I remind myself to put people before problems and values before valuables.”
He points out that we are all prone to confusing facts and opinions.
In the animated film Inside Out the characters are riding along on the train of thoughts and a stack of boxes containing facts and opinions get jostled and spills out on the floor. One of the characters is concerned about getting them all back into the right boxes, and another character comments that it doesn’t really matter because they all look alike anyway. Your position is an opinion.
Jenkins goes on to say that once we form an opinion, we are subject to confirmation bias, where we look for or even create evidence to support our opinion. I’ve seen this happen in my own life. Having no opinion about the color of the new carpet, asked for one I weakly offered one. Suddenly, I find myself offended by every other color option. Three minutes earlier, I couldn’t have cared less.
“It is probably more important to be open than to be right,” he says.
Conner similarly suggests acknowledging the inherent biases we all have.
Even when you’re on your best behavior, others may push your buttons, perhaps making a personal attack. What to do then?
Nancy Hoole Taylor, licensed mental health counselor, says, “Do not internalize what others say. It is usually more of a reflection of who they are and not yourself.”
Or, as Jenkins puts it, “A sure fire way to escalate a situation is to take things personally.”
He spent over a dozen years doing child custody evaluations for the court. “In these nasty divorce situations where people really needed to discuss issues in the interest of the children, their engagement in the personal conflicts commonly derailed the discussions and they spent an enormous amount of time and energy fighting and being offended.”
Jenkins offers four ideas for de-escalation:
Jenkins’ number four seems especially appropriate when the only response you can conceive involves language your mother wouldn’t approve.
Conner has her own approach. She notes that if someone else was personally attacked she’d come to their defense. “If it were about me, I’d maybe address it with humor–‘I may somewhat have resembled that’–and then move the focus to the issue at hand.”
She suggests making a kind or empathetic remark and then closing the discussion with a note of mutual agreement more positive than simply agreeing to disagree. She also agrees that in some cases, the best strategy is to disengage.
Therapist Judith S. Moore shares her strategy: “I express my love for the one disagreeing with me, letting them know we can still be friends.”
Jenkins offers this important reminder, “People are not wrong about how they feel or their opinions, their position is completely consistent with their current set of beliefs and perceptions. Let them be right about that. It’s also okay to not have an end to a discussion, to remain in the question and remember that opinions (including, and perhaps especially, your own) change.
The best advice of all, I think, was Jenkins’ parting wisdom: “Give up your need to be right.”