In principle, in order for people to avoid conflict there has to be a way for them to talk. When in tension with someone else in my group, rather than talk with them directly, it is easiest to assume a superior position and take steps to prove my righteousness. It is also relatively easy to propose changes to the system in which we both operate: new rules, new policies, new ways of doing things that I think will make the tension go away. But both of these approaches create conflict and/or burden for my group.
Sometimes the barrier to direct communication is of a mechanical nature such as language or physical proximity or connection. But most often the barrier is our own fear about having a hard conversation. We don’t trust ourselves to say the right things or react the right ways. We are afraid that in a one-on-one setting we will lose the battle we are trying to win.
Practical Tip: Don’t view tensions as battles to be won or lost but rather as shared problems to be solved in shared ways. Before doing anything else, seek first to find a way to talk with those who are part of the problem.
If there are mechanical barriers to talking, work to fix them. In today’s world, going to war because one party can’t physically communicate with another is no excuse. If there are personal emotional barriers in the way, work to fix them. You are part of the problem; have a talk with yourself. Creating conflict or requiring your group to consider systemic changes because of your own emotional issues is selfish and inefficient.
And if someone else proposes a way to talk with you about a shared problem, accept the opportunity. Always talk first. Find a way.
In principle, when people in a country, state, town, or family have opposing political views, it’s really hard because political views reflect our core values and our core identity. It’s hard when your sense of identity is threatened. It’s no wonder people opt out of politics or don’t like it when things get political.
Yet opposing political views also reflect our diversity; that we come from different places with different experiences and different beliefs. Our diversity helps us learn new things from each other and helps us craft new solutions to our problems.
Disagreement can have really positive outcomes when people understand where each other are coming from. Disagreement can have really negative outcomes when people misunderstand each other.
Misunderstandings almost always lead to conflict. Someone acts on a false assumption. The act gets interpreted as intentionally aggressive. More assumptions result. More aggression results.
Even when we disagree, understanding each other has some very practical benefits:
If I feel that you have heard and understood my perspective I am much more likely to peacefully accept the outcome, whatever it is.
If I truly understand your perspective I have a much better chance of making a decision that doesn’t backfire or miss the mark or result in bad outcomes that I didn’t even see coming.
If we understand each other we have a much better chance of finding a solution that works for us both.
Practical Tip: Engage in actual conversations with people who have different political views so you can better understand them. It works well to invite someone to such a conversation rather than force it on them. And it works well to talk and listen with respect and not try to change each other’s minds.
Listen to understand where an opposing person is coming from, how they came to such points of view, and why such views are important to them. Demonstrate that you have heard them. Tell how your experience has influenced your political views.
You don’t have to agree on all the facts. State facts that contribute to your viewpoint and hear facts that contribute to theirs. It’s okay to point out differences in the factual accounts; that leads to new learning. If you shame someone for not believing the same facts as you; that leads to new levels of conflict.
It’s okay to walk away without minds changed or agreements reached. If you walk away with even just a bit of increased understanding or increased respect, that’s terrific.
If you feel misunderstood or mistreated, ask the person why they are being that way. Listen to understand. Show that you have heard them. Then say how the misunderstanding or mistreatment affects you.
If someone has no interest in understanding your view and intentionally chooses to mistreat you based on false assumptions, that’s more than political divide. That’s prejudice, oppression, abuse. The principles and tips for that are different I’m afraid.
An Experiment: In my hometown of Brunswick, Maine we tried an experiment called the Make Shift Coffee House. It was a gathering on a Saturday night to understand each other’s political views, and hang out. We had live music, good food, and political conversation. It got written up in the local paper and several people made comments at the Make Shift Coffee House website. Learn about it here.
I would love to facilitate more Make Shift Coffee Houses; more conversations across political divides. It’s what we need. If you would like to partner with me on this please speak up.
Last word: It’s our political divide; not my political divide or your political divide. It’s ours. We’re in this together. It’s our country, our state, our town, our family. The most effective way to stop group infighting is to establish a common enemy; a common cause. Understanding each other is our best hope to reveal our common cause; a cause bigger and more important than our political divide.
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