Carter & Hendel: 2020 election, COVID and more -- Want to get your point across? Change your attitude

There can be no positive change without first understanding each other to find common ground

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Black lives matter,” asserted many.

All lives matter,” responded many others.

This is where any ongoing conversation usually comes to a screeching halt.

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Why is that?

People with different beliefs often struggle to communicate in a way that builds empathy and connection.

Even with the best of intentions, all it takes is one wrong turn—one moment that evokes a strong emotion like anger, fear, shame, or anxiety—to derail the conversation. Instead of responding with words that lead to greater understanding, we lash out, dismiss, ridicule, ‘block’ the other person, and so on.

How can we better engage with those who stand “across the divide?” With the final stretch of the 2020 presidential campaign just around the corner and a huge schism between the two sides, we believe that as impossible as it may seem, it is possible.

There can be no positive change without first understanding each other to find common ground. We all want basic safety and security. We all want freedom. We all want to be understood and to be treated kindly.

As an affect-based psychotherapist and a language strategist who consults on persuasion, we believe that the answer lies in an understanding of emotions.

Emotions are automatic responses that in a flash transform the mind and body from calm, open, and connected states of being to anxious, agitated, and disconnected states. In triggered moments, the intention to stay calm and connected while discussing a difficult subject seamlessly devolves into anger, blame, or withdrawal. To transcend these moments, we need strategies to override our reactive impulses.

Here are a few such strategies:

First, recognize that all political conversations are emotional conversations.

When we enter into these conversations, we intend to defend our beliefs with nothing but logic, reason, and facts. In reality, there is no separating logic, reason, or even fact from emotion when it comes to politics. And that is true on both sides.

Our beliefs become part of our identity originating from the personal experiences with our families and peers and compounded by the clickbait culture we are living in.

Take the debate to defund the police. We’ve seen African American BLM activists get choked up with anger and fear as they recall their own traumatic encounters with the police.

We’ve also seen people on the other side of the debate shake with the same anger and fear as they recall being victims of a violent crime in which the police were their only recourse.

Both kinds of people are in the throes of a deeply emotional experience—and that’s OK.

Our emotional experience belongs within an ideological debate just as much as facts do—but it needs to be acknowledged as such, and then channeled productively.

This is especially true of anger, which can so easily send our good intentions right out the window.

Again, psychologists and neurologists know this to be true: when strong emotions like rage are triggered, the logical part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, shuts off in favor of the limbic system, the emotion center.

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We literally lose the ability to think and respond rationally when we are very angry.

Thus, even saying something as simple as “I feel myself getting angry” can preemptively defuse a heated moment and save the broader conversation. That’s the power of self-awareness that we must bring to these discussions if we want them to succeed.

Ultimately, it’s a balancing act between validating your own and the other person’s emotions and knowing when they’ve got too tight a grip and you need to take a break before continuing to engage.

If neither side is able to validate the emotions of the other—and, just as importantly, identify and process their own emotional response before jumping to a defensive or offensive retort—understanding and connection cannot take place.

Second, when you feel yourself getting angry, return to a place of curiosity.

Another way to engage in a more productive dialogue is to change your objective: instead of trying to be right, make your goal to learn about the other person.

Don’t assume that you know what a hot-button term means to the individual who uses it. Don’t assume you know why they believe what they do.

Don’t assume they are good or bad. Don’t assume anything. Instead, ask follow-up questions.

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Whenever you feel yourself getting upset, you can always return to this place of curiosity. Staying curious keeps you from getting emotionally triggered by keeping your prefrontal cortex (the logical part of your brain) activated. Instead of receding into anger you’ll be more likely to have a fruitful discussion.

Finally, validate the other person’s concerns.

One thing we hear over and over again in our different practices is clients saying to us, “if they only knew XYZ, then they would understand.” So, after you’ve posed a follow-up question to the other person, demonstrate that you understand their answer.

It especially helps if you can recount their answer back to them in different words. It also helps to add affirmations like “I really hear you” and “that would upset me too.”

Importantly, telling someone that you hear and understand their concerns doesn’t mean that you are endorsing their beliefs.

It just shows that you’re willing to put yourself in their shoes and recognize your shared humanity, which is the bridge to connection and solving problems constructively together.

Below is an example of how all these tips can be used in action. This is how a conversation about wearing a mask between two friends (who have very different beliefs on the subject) might begin:

Joe: I can’t believe that after all this time and with the numbers going up that people refuse to wear a mask.  What is wrong with everyone?  It’s selfish and reckless.  I have to be honest, I’m really upset that you are out here without a mask. Why?

Paul: I’m just not convinced a flimsy cotton mask is going to work.  And they keep on changing their mind about masks. I can be safe in my own way.  If I am healthy, have no symptoms and am staying isolated, why do I need to wear a mask?  

Joe:  I hear you have doubts and that makes sense. We know they aren’t perfect.  But, it’s one simple thing that people can do to slow the spread. I also hear you are healthy which is wonderful. But did you know that people can feel healthy and still be contagious? Are you saying you don’t care if you sicken someone else who could die? 

Paul: Of course I care about others.  But I think the risk is very low if I’m careful and I definitely don’t want the government to tell me what to do.    

Joe: I’m glad that we agree that we don’t want to hurt others with our actions. And, I get it. I don’t like people telling me what to do either. But I am curious, not judging, about what is the downside of wearing a mask in a store? I'd rather we do it and slow the spread without being forced into it. If we don’t find ways to slow the spread, I am sure that even more regulations will get passed. 

Paul: I guess I would rather wear a mask than have the government mandate it - and even worse, shut us down entirely.  I have to be honest though, I really hate how judgmental people have gotten and how political masks are. I think it’s a lot more complicated than people think it is. Not wearing a mask doesn’t mean that people are ignorant or selfish.  People have their reasons, especially when they are outside at a safe distance from others.  

Joe: I hear you and I never thought you were ignorant or a bad person. I can see how you see it now.  Even though I hate that we have to do it too, I wish everyone would wear a mask inside and socially distance so we could get the numbers down, be able to trace infections, and get rid of this virus so life can go back to normal. 

Paul: I wish that too, Joe. 

Notice how both Joe and Paul ask questions of each other, even when it doesn’t seem necessary.

Paul’s first reaction upon hearing the term “selfish and reckless” could have easily been defensive: to roll his eyes, or to insist with even more frustration that he isn’t either. Instead, he asks Joe to go more in-depth.

Both Joe and Paul also use phrases like “I hear you” and “I understand how frustrating that must be” to validate each other’s emotions and express their sympathy.

There can be no positive change without first understanding each other to find common ground. We all want basic safety and security. We all want freedom. We all want to be understood and to be treated kindly.

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Let’s start from the supposition that because we are all human, we are all more alike than different.

The future of the United States of America depends on it.

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is a psychoanalyst and author of "It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self" (Random House, 2018).

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