Last week, I shared my concerns about the growing divide between the various factions of our society. I expressed my belief that our positions on political and social issues have become more extreme, and that we seem to have lost the ability to engage in civil disagreement.
In her recent book, “Braving the Wilderness” (2017), Brene Brown, Ph.D. discusses our need to feel that we belong, and how that need makes it difficult for us to deal with those who disagree with us. She points out that we have an innate fear of not belonging. Research even shows that loneliness contributes to illness and death as much as smoking or obesity.
Dr. Brown asserts that our divisions widen, and our positions become more extreme, because of our fears. Her research suggests that our fears have grown stronger since the terrorist attacks of 911, and that those fears have changed us. She points out that our national conversations have focused more-and-more on “what should we fear, and who should we blame.”
She defined terrorism as “time-released fear,” and stated that “the goal of terrorism is to embed fear so deeply in our community that it becomes a way of life.” This fear then fuels our anger and blame so that we begin to turn on one another. We become divided.
So, how can we narrow our divisions? One of Dr. Brown’s recommendations is to make a deliberate effort to engage in honest, but civil conversations with those who hold different views. She points out that it is difficult to hate someone close-up. As we get to know someone personally, we see more of our similarities and fewer of our differences.
There is, of course, a major difference between a debate and a conversation. We try to win a debate. We don’t listen in a debate, except to find a weakness in their position to strengthen our own argument. We walk away from a debate feeling we have won or lost, but with no shift in our original opinion. Debates tend to deepen our divisions.
A conversation is different. The point of a conversation is to communicate. A conversation doesn’t require a winner or a loser. Listening is at least fifty percent of a conversation. At the end of a conversation, you may still disagree, but you feel heard and respected. You have done nothing to lessen the other person, and they have done nothing to lessen you. You may actually find that your positions became a bit less extreme.
Of course, our national divisions are massive and the underlying reasons are complex. The very thought of healing the divide feels overwhelming and way beyond any individual’s reach. But, just because we can’t do everything shouldn’t stop us from doing something. Perhaps we could begin with a few simple, honest, civil conversations.