Pick your issue and I’m certain you will be able to identify someone you’re closely connected with (or have been) who vehemently holds the opposite opinion than you. We are experiencing unprecedented divisions and polarization in modern times. Tune into your favorite news channel or social media platform, and you’ll hear or read all about what your side is doing right and what the other is doing wrong. All day long, 24/7, so much of social media engenders and reinforces divisiveness between you and “them.”
These seemingly insurmountable gullies between opinions on masks vs. no masks, Trump vs. Biden, kids in schools vs. remote learning, keep the economy open vs. limiting businesses and so on, hit deeply held core values that are intricately and inescapably connected to our emotions. And here’s the kicker: At the end of the day, emotions drive all human behavior—the ultimate goal being the desire to be free of pain and to find peace/contentment, whether for this moment or for the long term.
Permeating beneath the stress, anxiety, and depression of these difficult times, is fear or hopelessness. Will I be able to pay the mortgage? Am I going to live? Will I unknowingly pass on the virus to someone I love? Will my business make it? Will my children fall behind in their education? What about their social development? How long can I keep living like this? The list goes on, and we just want this situation to end yesterday so we can all get back to “normal” life.
The magnitude of the emotional toll on our daily lives leads each one of us to formulate deeply convicted opinions on what we as a society should do in order to solve the problem. After all, the more intense our negative emotions are, the more invested we are in finding relief.
Unfortunately, in our common quest for an end, therein creates the divide. Because the fallout from the pandemic is dependent on what other people decide to do, your ultimate emotional reprieve from stress and fear is necessarily connected to the decisions of other individuals and our governmental leaders. This is why we care so much about “other.” The stakes are so high that we’ve arrived at a very polarized place where each side has dug into the belief of: “I’m right, you’re wrong, and your side is screwing everything up. If it weren’t for your side, my life could go back to being normal.” Reinforcing and adding fuel to the fire as I mentioned earlier, is that regardless of what side you’re on, you’ll find lots of support out there for your specific facts, opinions, and beliefs.
Is it possible to bridge these divisions? To find the we-ness? Yes, absolutely! Recall that every single person, regardless of race, culture, sex, sexual orientation, Religious or Spiritual background, is seeking the same thing: To live a life where one can experience contentment/peace. Beyond basic survival, we are all motivated to move towards this singular goal. That’s it. Very simple. I’d like you to pause for a minute (or two) and chew on that as you review all of your life decisions, big or small. Why did you do what you did?
You have a life story—what you have been taught, your cultural and family values, your struggles and challenges, your joyful and happy experiences— all of which have shaped your perspectives and beliefs. It is your human story that has landed you on one side vs. the other. What is true for you is also true for “other.” They, too, have a human story, but theirs has landed them in a different place than you.
To find the “we-ness,” the goal is to truly hear and learn their human story. It’s to listen with an open heart and mind to understand their choices and behaviors that is merely the surface of the depths of the human experience. In learning about their life’s journey of their ups and downs, while at the end you may still disagree with their choices, you will likely find a lot common ground and be able connect with them human to human. You will able to find the “we.”
Here are some tools to put in your toolbox to help you understand the human story as you interact with your fellow being:
- Be very intentional about putting your perspective aside. You are trying to see the world through their lens and their lens only.
- Do not paint people with a broad brush. Probably like you, just because you agree with one position, doesn’t mean you embrace all the rest that generally gets connected to that particular position.
- Listen from a place of curiosity.
- Listen without judgment or criticism.
- Do not minimize their feelings or thoughts.
- Ask clarifying questions to learn more or understand better.
- Do not ask questions to challenge or debate their beliefs.
- Try to find the specific emotions that drive their behavior.
- Empathize with their emotions.
- Validate their perspectives and experiences. Remember, it makes sense to them even if you see things differently.
- Point out any common ground you find with them.
- Share any similar experiences or emotions that you’ve had to foster connection.
Finally, to remind yourself that we are compassionate people who, at the core, do care about our fellow human being, think of this: If you were walking down the street, and the person in front of you suddenly drops to the ground, my hunch is that you would be quick to try to help. It probably wouldn’t even occur to you to wonder whether they are part of “us” or “them.” In that moment, there is only “we.”