The divisive mindset is one that puts people into groups in our minds and either condemns them or praises them for simply being in those groups. This is not a mindset that is unique to any one group right now—it is rampant among, and within, all of us.
For this reason, I write to the individual who is disturbed by divisiveness. I write to offer them support in understanding how to shift that very thinking within themselves so they can be in greater integrity when seeking to find common ground with others around them.
During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I saw countless failed attempts online trying to coax a Trump or Clinton supporter away from their chosen candidate.
If you were one of those people, this article is for you.
Whether your candidate won or not, those attempts to change someone else’s choice may have failed for a reason. Going forward, to bridge the divide in our country, I believe we must learn how to be more effective at influencing and hearing one another.
With that aim in mind, I’m inviting you to look at the part you played in those conversation failures so you can more consciously choose the part you will play from now on. Let’s first look at how you might have contributed to the breakdowns…
You may have entered the conversation with the assumption that you had more information, or the “correct” information. Whether or not this is true, this led you to believe you were in the right and the other was in the wrong, even before the conversation got going.
From this place, you saw the other as ignorant and in need of what you knew about their candidate. There was no real curiosity on your part about the person or their perspective. Instead, you may have asked questions that felt like curiosity but were more intended to draw out the other’s lack of knowledge or hypocrisy, as you saw it.
In a sense, you entered the conversation on the offensive, and wondered why the other was so defensive. You wondered why they weren’t shifting to see things your way. You were so fixed in your mindset while becoming annoyed that they were so fixed in theirs.
When you go in trying to win a political argument like this, it’s over before you begin. Nobody gains. Nobody wins.
You may have been focusing the content of the conversation on positions instead of interests¹. Positions are the “here’s what we should do” stuff. They are useful for when it’s time to choose an action. But in a political conversation, if you only stay at the level of positions, and you happen to have different interests that are not shared, then the conversation will immediately become oppositional.
- “You want to build a wall?”
- “You want to make college free?”
- “You want to expand Obamacare?”
- “Are you insane?”
All of these are responses to positions. When we instead inquire on the level of interests, we back off from the proposed actions and enter the bigger picture arena of intention and need. One way to get there is to say, “I’d like to understand why you think that’s the best way forward. If your way was successful, what do you believe that would allow for that isn’t as possible now?”
An interest might appear like:
- “Our country will be safer.”
- “We’ll become a stronger workforce in the global economy.”
- “We can make healthcare more accessible and affordable.”
And with those examples coming your way, notice your impulse may be to go back on the offensive with a statement like, “but we are already safe!” or “but we can’t afford free colleges!” or “that should have happened by now!”—followed by citing all the evidence you have to make your case stronger.
Okay, take a breath. In fact, that’s what you’ll need to do in those moments of conversation too. Give yourself room to pause and the other person room to elaborate while you continue to explore how they see.
If you want to be influential, you have to let yourself be influenced. This doesn’t mean letting people dictate what you should believe. It means creating the conditions in a conversation for openness by modeling that openness yourself.
You might respond to hearing an interest with an acknowledgment like:
- “Yeah, keeping our country safe is important to me too.”
- “I’d love to see our country with a stronger workforce.”
- “I also wish healthcare didn’t cost so much.”
And if you can’t quite bring yourself to any of those, you can at least say, “I can appreciate that the reason you want to build a wall is to keep our country safe.”
Let’s not forget the difference between patronizing and acknowledging here. Patronizing is when you continue to assume you are smart, the other is stupid, and that you have nothing to learn from them. Acknowledging is when you remain in a state of openness, no matter what you’re hearing.
While you acknowledge, you keep your words and thoughts in check by reminding yourself that here sits another human being that has a different but valid perspective. Not valid because you agree, but valid because it is true to how they see.
No amount of berating, ridiculing, shaming, or throwing facts in their face will change how they see (other than perhaps proving to them how awful people from “your” group are). If those strategies worked, we would not be where we are now. And again, if you aren’t open to changing your perspective in a conversation, then why should they be?
I am blessed to have a few people in my life that do not see the world like I do. Blessed because when I am open to being influenced, I always learn by including their perspective in my thinking.
It’s like putting down my glasses and trying theirs on—seeing a topic from their vantage point allows me to appreciate how they might have gotten to their positions and choice of words. Being willing to see through their glasses helps me form the questions that will allow me to find out more. And having gained this perspective I did not previously have, I enhance my own thinking and ability to influence from a place of understanding and respect.
There is one particular gentleman in my life who remained a strong Trump supporter for the duration of his campaign. He was certain of his choice and did not waver. In order for me to appreciate his view, which was different than my own, I had to take off my 1-dimensional glasses. In other words, I had to be willing to see him beyond the label of “Trump supporter” which comes with a fixed set of associations that don’t fully represent who he is as a person.
For example, this is a man who loves to be creative and build things with his hands. This is a man who makes sure that when his family sits down to open presents on Christmas eve, they all go one at a time so that the present is appreciated and fully received. This is a man who has worked very hard to build his own business. This is a man who laughs at videos where puppies do cute puppy things.
Do you see what happens when you appreciate a human being beyond the pre-packaged label of their political position? Before you engage in the your next political conversation, perhaps you can at least acknowledge that there are a myriad of details like this that you either do not know, or are not in touch with, that paint a fuller picture of who this person really is.
When you see people in only 1-dimension, it’s easier to demonize them and make them wrong. When you take those glasses off and put on theirs, you at least have some common humanity to work with in order to remain less on the offensive and more open.
It’s normal to at first feel resistant to seeing past a person’s positions, especially when you’re feeling afraid. In fact, you may choose to remain there. Just know that if your aim is to have influence in conversations, and you keep your 1-dimensional glasses on, you may continue to suffer a great deal. That suffering is the disconnect between your view and the fact that not everyone shares your view. This is why we do our best to take those glasses off. It is not just about being respectful, it’s about taking care of ourselves too.
Otherwise, our fear builds up and causes us to lash out at others. We might use pointed phrases like “wake up!”—which is often an expression of bravado masking a vulnerable thought like, “if you don’t see things my way, then I am afraid of the choices you will make and how those choices will hurt me.”
Start by being open. Open to hearing that you may have judged incorrectly. Open to making a connection you did not think possible. Open to disagreeing without having to feel disgust. Open to seeing how similar you may be to the people you’ve packaged in labels.
And there’s no guarantee that your openness will lead to the other being open. We practice openness not as a form of controlling others, but as an invitation that may or may not be acted upon in the way we hope. I find that to be the hardest part of modeling a behavior I believe in—it doesn’t always get reflected back.
Are there flaws in this line of thinking? Yes, of course—as there are in any individual’s perspective. Every moment we decide how to act and what to say is based upon more variables than can be covered in any one piece of writing. None of us as individuals have all the answers. This is why, I believe, it’s so important to be curious and listen to one another. This is how we learn. In essence, I trust you will take what resonates from this article and discard the rest.
By interacting openly with the gentleman I mentioned earlier, I have learned to tap into my own resolve as a business owner. And to deepen my commitment to noticing when I’m wearing my 1-dimensional glasses so that I can choose to take them off. And to deepen my commitment to be curious before trying to be right.
I respect his convictions, even if they differ from my own. And I appreciate that he and I share the interest that time spent with family is one of the most precious things in the world.
PS: I’ve created a page of resources for those curious about how to take those 1-dimensional glasses off.
[ ¹I first learned about “positions and interests” through my career at Interaction Associates. ]