Over the course of my career, I have been able to get the pulse on larger social trends based on the types of requests for support my colleagues and I have received. Beginning in 2016, for example, requests have been pouring for support related to transforming polarized conversations. In 2020, we began receiving requests for assistance with undoing discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia, and other isms. While concerns related to polarization and isms existed before 2020, the pandemic has accelerated existing divisions while also creating new social tensions. Friends, families, workplaces, and social groups have found themselves torn apart by differences. While our differing world views could once remain theoretical, they have now become personal: they not only feel real – they are real, with friends and colleagues unfriending each other in small and large ways because of the growing chasm between them that neither seems capable of crossing. This past weekend, a friend said to me about the state of our world: “We have to re-learn how to talk across the divide again.” My friend is right – we do need to relearn this critical skill. But how? Engaging in hard conversations is not for the faint of heart.
Let me offer just a few steps that we can follow to help us find our way together again.
Step 1: Find the Desire to Cross the Divide
One of the hardest challenges associated with polarization is the difficulty associated with actually finding the desire to engage the other. We are inclined to ask: Do we have to engage the other? Can’t we just avoid each other? While it is possible to unfriend someone on Facebook, for many of our workplaces, communities, and families, we cannot avoid each other. Nor should we. After all, it is when we avoid talking with each other that people move to the extremes, operate on false assumptions about one another, and act in ways that serve to deepen our divides. As the chasms between us grow, we lose our ability to thrive as a civilization. While we do not all need to agree, when groups pull in increasingly opposite directions, we lose the capacity to build a generous and meaning-filled civilization. We risk creating a society defined by divisions and hatred. We also lose the capacity for joy. Finding the desire to cross the divide involves committing ourselves to this journey. This sounds simple but it is not straightforward. We may need to allow our frustration to dissipate before reaching for the other. We may need to find the space within us that is able to recognise the common humanity between us and the other. Or we may need to come to realise that the risks of continuing the divide outweigh the risks associated with crossing the chasm to meet the other. Whatever we must do, a first step in transforming polarized conversations invites us to find the desire within us to open ourselves to the other.
Step 2: Commit to Curiosity instead of Judgement or Assumptions
Over the last few weeks, my ears have been tuned to listen for how people lean on assumptions to explain their differences with one another. I have been astonished at how frequently we make assumptions about the other – regardless of whether these perspectives are true. I should not be surprised: I teach this stuff. Yet – as I listened to one conversation after another, there it was, again and again: assumptions regarding what makes the other person who they are and why they do what they do. Most often our assumptions are based on judgements – an accounting of why the other person is so difficult or misguided. Often, our assumptions include statements about why we believe the other has specifically targeted us. Committing to curiosity instead of assumptions or judgement allows us to remain open to being surprised. It untethers us from the fight, flight or freeze response, allowing us to remain in a learning stance, enhancing within us both creativity and the capacity to learn.
Step 3: Lean in to hard conversations.
I suppose this goes without saying: We need to become better at having hard conversations. Many of us would happily avoid conversations when we differ with another person or when we have been hurt. When we avoid hard conversations, however, we miss opportunities to learn, and we miss allowing others the opportunity to learn from us. Of course, not every difference can be solved by a tough conversation. Nor is every situation appropriate for a direct conversation. When appropriate, however, leaning in to hard conversations can build connection and community with one another – even when we disagree. Navigating tough conversations depends on three core principles: humility, patience and courage. We must ground ourselves in humility, knowing that we could be wrong about what we hold to be true. We must bring a spirit of deep and patient courage with us: These conversations are often not short – nor are they easy. With skill, practice and goodwill, however, hard conversations can help us to better understand the other and ourselves – something that is sorely needed in our time.
Step 4: Recognise the Both-and Polarity under Either-or Conversations
Our divides are deepened when we treat both-and polarities as either-or conversations. While many of our hard conversations involve an either-or problem, a both-and polarity undergirds most either-or dilemmas. For example, mask mandates appear to be an either-or question. Either we support mask mandates or not. Beneath this either-or problem, however, is a both-and polarity. Those in favour of mask mandates promote thinking for the good of the whole. Those opposed to mask mandates promote honouring the rights of the individual. Thinking for the good of the whole and honouring the rights of the individual are both valuable principles. We do not want a society that disregards the individual. Nor do want a society that dismisses as irrelevant the care for one’s neighbour. If we treat this both-and polarity as an either-or, we risk falling into the trap of leaning on only one or the other of these two principles. When we do this, we fall into dangerous expressions of these very important values. If we only honour the rights of individuals, we fall into anarchy. If we only think for the good of the whole, we minimize individual voices. The both-and polarity under the either-or question invites us to think creatively, to be motivated by both, the good of the whole and the rights of the individual. Both-and thinking is not easy. It can, however, challenge us to have better conversations when we are caught in either-or problems that are difficult to solve.
Step 5: Remember the Value of Laughter, Play and Unconditional Positive Regard
Let us always remember the principle of “unconditional positive regard” for the people with whom we align and the people with whom we differ. Remembering to honour the humanity of each person – even delighting in their personhood – allows us to see beyond our differences to that which binds us together. This commitment involves remembering to laugh with one another and incorporate a spirit of play into our social conversations. We are more than our differences and we are more than our arguments. We are, each of us, people worthy of dignity, honour, and respect. If we start there, who knows where our conversations – and our moments of laughter – can take us.