Much will be written about the 2016 Presidential election. Its outcome signaled a realignment in political coalitions but also reflected an increasingly balkanized information environment, with people reading and watching sources that reinforced their beliefs and emotions.
For some people in America – at least half, if the polls are right – the morning of 11/9 was a kind of traumatic echo or bookend to the events of 9/11 fifteen years ago. Living in a blue town, I got calls and emails from nearby friends and colleagues who were in tears, emotionally disoriented, outraged, crushed. Some were dealing with employees and mentees who were openly voicing fear of or contempt for the newly elected President and for those who voted for him. At a personal level, people are experiencing this election in a way that most have not since the 1960s, when Americans found themselves in deep conflicts concerning civil rights, Vietnam, a rapidly degrading environment, and women’s liberation.
Elections are complicated, potent soil for conflict because they bring into sharp relief different political beliefs. General or abstract beliefs are easier to debate without losing civility. You and I might have different views about the role of government, but could argue that in a relatively civil way, and agree to disagree, because there is no immediate consequence to our disagreement (other than our conclusion that the other side is sadly mistaken!). But when we get to policies that have perceived consequences, the stakes are raised and it is easier to lose our poise and to leap to conclusions about the morality and intentions of the other side.
It is crucial at this moment to remember that people who vote differently from us may do so for a diverse set of reasons. A single issue may matter more than any other. They may see two candidates views as more alike than we do; they may have different information than we do, or have had very different experiences. We may have watched a moment in the campaign over and over; they were watching a different loop. The Fundamental Attribution Error leads us to believe that how someone voted represents deep motives or intentions rather than a response to the way they perceive a situation, which may be very different from how we see it. Research suggests that liberals are actually more likely to overestimate the extremism of conservatives’ beliefs than the reverse; and both sides – and centrists – tend to overestimate how differently liberals and conservatives see the world.
What can we do to stay engaged with others when we see their views as threatening, dangerous, or even immoral?
First, find an ally to connect with before you engage in conversations with someone who disagrees with you. When we feel alone in our views it is easy to become defensive, to lose our cool, and to blow up or clam up. Knowing that someone else feels and believes as we do can help us to remain more open and curious when engaging with those who we see as different, and to assert our own beliefs and views of problems more clearly and without losing our poise. When we connect with someone who shares our views, it helps us to know that they are valid, and to stay cool when our views are challenged.
Second, find something to appreciate about the other person or side. It’s right out of Dale Carnegie, but starting with appreciation helps promote positive emotion in the other person, making them less defensive and more ready to listen.
Third, try hard to construct or frame a shared problem. A shared problem is one that is trying to address the problem you see (getting more people health insurance, for example, or reducing systemic financial risk) and the one I see (bringing health care costs down, or making lending easier for banks). There is a three step process for doing this.
- Work hard to take the other person’s perspective. (Research shows that negotiators who spend even a few minutes taking the other side’s perspective in their minds actually achieve better outcomes for themselves.) It is hard not to start arguing with someone when we hear something we believe is wrong or misinformed. But asking questions to try to draw out how they see or understand a situation or problem, and summarizing what you have heard, is a first step to having a different kind of conversation.
- Share how you see the problem. We need to ask the other person’s permission to do that, and then to state it clearly and without incorporating passing criticism of their views into how we describe our own.
- Ask the other person to work with you to define a shared problem – one that incorporates the goals both sides have. Reducing unwanted pregnancies might a problem that both a pro-choice and pro-life advocate could rally behind. Stimulating growth while mitigating economic inequality might be another. You get the idea.
Fourth, suggest joint-fact-finding Seeking information side by side with someone is very different from criticizing or attacking their beliefs. Almost every human being of any political orientation will respond with anger or defensiveness if you attack their beliefs. Rather than disputing the other side’s assumptions we can try to find a question to ask together. For example: what evidence is that that lowering taxes leads to growth and prosperity? For whom is prosperity created? What kinds of taxes? By how much? What are the costs if any? Asking questions together immediate makes issues less binary and more complex.
Fifth, seek help or suggestions from trusted third parties – people who are economists or historians, for example, or just someone whose manner or thinking we both admire. What do they think? Sometimes they see things that neither we nor our counterpart does.
Finally, make bets. Negotiation theorists call an agreement that takes the form of “if X… then Y…” a contingent agreement. You might say, “I’ll bet you that states with less restrictive gun laws don’t have significantly higher murder rates.” Bets can help to move people from deadlocks to outcomes in conversations, and also push people to think more carefully about their own reasoning. (“Hmmm, am I sure that guns laws and murder rates are correlated? How sure?”) Before you shake hands, though, ask the other side, “What would it mean to you on this issue if I turn out to be right? Would you change your mind?” The best bets are the ones that open each side to the idea that they could be wrong.
Conflicts can be enriching. When we see problems from multiple points of view, we can learn. We can teach. We can explain. We can invent new and better solutions. We can make more convincing arguments, ones that start with an understanding of what’s important to the other side. And we can form less hostile beliefs toward those who disagree with us.
But conflict, or the prospect of it, is also daunting, particularly when we feel that what others want or believe will harm us or those we love. Conflict conversations can be incredibly stressful. It takes resolve – and some helpful tools – to develop the courage and know-how to approach conflicts productively.
We’ll all have opportunities to practice in the year ahead.