I was talking with an American friend of mine the other day and she was complaining about another friend – a dear close friend – who does not share her choice of presidential candidate. Their discussion had become heated, and my friend was upset because her other friend continuously harangued her for maintaining her political point of view.
I’m hearing this from many friends of mine these days – their anger and upset, their futile attempts to change the minds of their ‘misguided’ friends and colleagues, and after watching the slanging match that was the first presidential debate, I got to thinking about how all of us have largely forgotten how to speak to people with a different point of view.
I’m not talking about people who are bigoted, racist or violent, but simply perfectly law-abiding, reasonable people who happen to want to vote for a different candidate or party than we do.
So here are some thoughts I have about dealing with political divides.
Currently most relationships and most interactions are forged from the erroneous idea that we have to be the same to get along and that differences between us are to be avoided at all costs.
In fact, conflict is considered so antithetical to the human experience that when others disagree with us, we conclude that they must be stupid or ill informed.
To justify this position, we find it necessary to debate them, demonize them, and announce their ignorance to the world. In our minds, conflict can be resolved only with I win, you lose.
While a debate is supposed to have a winner and a loser – and let’s hope that the next debate is conducted with both more content and more mutual respect – in ordinary discussions with friends, all of us could use some reminders about how to speak to the other.
I’ve found that the following suggestions allow you to make deep connections with anyone, even those who disagree with everything you stand for, and engage conflict in creative ways in order to produce greater shared understanding and possibility.
They also help you to promote closeness through the power of deep truth and candid disclosure rather than the strength of your arguments.
These techniques encourage the opposite of what you’ve learned in critical thinking or debating classes. You focus on what is positive, truthful, and wise about what others are saying, not the flaws in their arguments, and areas of common ground.
11 ways to speak to people who disagree
- Keep alert for “Us versus Them” thinking, language, and actions. As soon as you start generalizing about one race or ethnic group of people—whether Republicans, Muslims, or even bankers—you have defined a group as “them.” Expunge this kind of language from your vocabulary.
- Separate out gradations of belief. The idea that all the people who hold a certain view have the same exact position is a stereotype. As psychologist Dr Don Beck, creator of Spiral Dynamics system, once described, fine gradations of belief exist among people who appear to agree, and most of us outside of a belief system don’t appreciate the wide spectrum of beliefs held within any given position. Pro-choice advocates, for instance, have widely divergent views from each other, from those who believe that abortion is justified in all circumstances to those who believe abortion is justified only in cases of rape. Seek to identify these fine distinctions in beliefs or practices so that you do not miss a chance to find common ground.
- Seek out kernels of truth in any opposing position rather than the differences in views between the other person and yourself.
- Mentally swap roles with someone else. Imagine the issue from the polar opposite of your own position and offer as many solid arguments in favor of that position as you can. This helps you to take a larger perspective on the issue. By the same token, try to imagine someone else looking at your ideas. What do you think they see?
- Share honestly and reveal your backstory – why you have come to believe what you believe. Encourage the other to do the same.
- Experiment with a positive description of your differences. Instead of complaining, “Those atheist heathens don’t go to church,” think and say, “How interesting—atheists believe in a natural intelligence.”
- Listen actively—with your heart, mind, and soul. Listen to other things besides what the speaker is saying: how he describes things, what he emphasizes or where he places the most energy, how he holds his body, how he appears to feel.
- Uncover the hidden connections between you and other people, whether in your faith, your locality, your citizenship, your sex, or your local or national interests. Both Republicans and Democrats have many identical interests: a love of family, God, children, home, and country. All of us want to fix the economy, the roads, the government, the high price of gasoline, our educational system. Working out how to do so together affords us an opportunity to come together for a larger goal, at which point superficial differences diminish in importance.
- During differences, seek to change the space between you. Change the energy that flows between you by changing your tempo, your attitude, your facial expressions. Make your body language and unspoken communication transmit your desire to connect.
- Ask questions to clarify your understanding, not to score points, and use language that empowers the other. Instead of “What are you doing about X?,” which sounds accusatory (as if they aren’t doing enough), say, “What would you like to see done about X?”
- Finally, send that person some positive intention while he or she is telling you about their beliefs and position.
Try using these with people who are not like you and see what happens. You may well find that deep down you aren’t that different after all, and even if you are, there’s a way for both your truths to co-exist.