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Resolve Differences of Opinion in 3 Steps

Our relationships and mental wellness are absorbing the impact of a highly polarized culture. Whether it’s politics, religion, parenting, or lifestyle choices, we are increasingly affected by doubling down on differences. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Differences do and always will exist, but our differences don’t have to take such a hefty toll on our well-being. Read on for how to navigate differences with grace.

“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose—to help him or her empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you’re still capable of continuing to listen with compassion because you know that in listening like that you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want him to correct his perception you wait for another time. Now you don’t interrupt, you don’t argue. You listen that way, you listen that way with one purpose—to help him or her empty his heart.”

The Cost of Disagreement

In my counseling practice I have experienced a surge of clients whose concern for the increasingly polarized social climate has had deleterious effects on their mental health and on relationships. And there certainly is a lot to be concerned about. However, I maintain that greater openness to listening to one another (while not having to necessarily agree), could go a long way to heal the vast rifts that are forming between friends, families, and society.

Humans are tribal by nature. We take comfort in surrounding ourselves with people who are like us. At social gatherings, we seek out people who might have something in common with us. In our daily lives, we’re most often friends with people with similar interests and ideologies. In relationships, we are even attracted to people with similar facial features.

Nowhere is our tribalism more evident than in social media. Thanks to the outlets of the interwebs, more than ever we are off in our little corners, beating our tribal drums, pumping up our little posses. We post a political or ideological comment and then wait impatiently for those “likes” and “comments” to come rolling in. But strangely we have the gall to be offended when a commentator disagrees. Positive strokes only, that’s what we want.

Why We Get Mean When We Disagree

Let’s take a closer look into why this polarization occurs. If we zoom in REALLY close, we’ll see how stress and fear makes us reactive. When we’re threatened, our limbic system—AKA the “lizard brain”—takes over. This is when we’re in fight-or-flight mode. This reactive mode is what impels people to jump to accusations or lectures when a loved one has an ideological view they don’t agree with. But what underlies that accusation is fear. The limbic system also impels a person to make sweeping judgments of religions, races, groups and organizations, when they feel threatened, marginalized, or judged by them.

The problem with reacting in “fight or flight” mode is that we end up talking AT one another and PAST one another, rather than carrying on meaningful conversations of understanding WITH each other. We can’t solve ideological schisms by doubling-down on dogma.

So what can be done to bridge the gulf of ideological impasse to families, relationships, and societies? I offer three practices for improving relationships and soothing hurt when ideologies differ:

1. Take a Deep Breath

It sounds ridiculously simple, but before reacting, take a deep breath. The mind is in reactive mode when confronted with a differing view. It wants to strike back in defense of your position. Ask yourself: How many people have been persuaded to change sides thanks to a forceful counter-argument? I dare say little to none. So take a deep breath and as you release it, open yourself up to a different way of reacting.

2. Mindful Self-Attention

When confronted with an opinion, our attention is usually more focused on preparing a response than on receiving the other person’s message. But if we can notice our feelings and physical sensations, we have more control over our reaction. The very act of noticing our anger or frustration, AND noticing how it’s manifesting in the body (racing heart, flushed face, sweaty palms, etc), can take us out of re-active mode, and help us become pro-active. This is because simply by noticing, our reactive limbic system is reigned in by the frontal cortical region of the brain, which is responsible for thinking rationally through the consequences of our actions. When we bring mindful attention to our thoughts and physical sensations, we re-engage the part of our brain that helps us act in ways that better align with our higher values–our “wise mind”.

A response that begins with a pause for mindful awareness of the feeling + physical sensations is a response that promote unity, rather than discord. This mindful attention only takes a few seconds, but can help divert potential escalation.

3. Be Curious, Not Furious

If we’re not conversing for the purpose of persuading the other of our superior position, what else is there? I would argue that the reason to engage in discourse, whether online or in vivo, is not to change the “other”, but in order to connect with another human being. If you believe that human beings are essentially good, then switching from “convincing” to “curiosity” may not be too big of a stretch. But it requires a conscious effort. Curiosity is a gift we give to our partner in discourse. It is an act of compassion, and as such, will calm tense feelings (de-activating the brain’s fight-or-flight response), opening up possibilities for creativity in problem-solving (which is the job of our “wise brain”, or pre-frontal cortex).

What this looks like in real life is not just listening to the words that are spoken or written, but listening behind the words for what’s really there. Is there hurt or fear behind another person’s strident stance?What is their body language communicating? What is their background? Why do they feel so strongly about this? What message is behind their words? 

Be curious.

These three steps:

  1. Taking a deep breath
  2. Mindful attention
  3. Being curious

…Move the conversation forward, giving space for actual problem-solving. They open us up to new possibilities, new ways of seeing the world, new ways of reacting to the situation.

In our culture of certainty, there might be some anxiety about being changed by a differing view. We do not have to agree with others’ views, but being calm, mindful, and curious enough to better understand where they’re coming from reveals the humanity in whom we previously considered to be the “other”, and facilitates possibilities for progress.

Listening with curiosity, letting go of the need to control the other person or the situation, and examining our inner dialogue, is soul-expanding; It expands souls big enough to bridge the gulf of criticism and impasse that previously divided them.

To listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by

what we hear.”  - Mark Nepo

(*A disclaimer: when your safety is being threatened, either physically or psychologically, that is NOT the time to compassionately listen. That is the time to get yourself into a safe place.)