Calling All Depolarizers! Part 2: Confident Humility

 

…”So what keeps our inner depolarizer in the closet when it comes to sensitive topics like abortion, immigration, religion, and politics in general? Or in family conflict and workplace politics? I posit that it has, at least partially, to do with two levels of psychological safety: intrinsic and extrinsic.” Let’s talk about the first, which can be thought of as confident humility:

Premise:  I resist/reject/assail challenges to my beliefs and positions because I worry that those challenges will change my beliefs and positions.  If my beliefs are changed, then what does that mean?  Am I weak?  A hypocrite?  Uncommitted?  What will others think of me?  Will I get kicked out of my tribe? Or, maybe I just think I’m right, and I’m simply not open to the possible value of any other perspective? Or I’m afraid that if I’m not right, then I’m just wrong, and that feels too uncomfortable and I don’t want to go there. 

Question:  When does it feel safe to reconsider or challenge some belief I have?   

Answer:  When I don’t have a strong personal investment in my belief—it isn’t material to my identity, tribal membership, or survival, real or perceived.  In his book Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein summarizes eloquently the psychological research suggesting that when we perceive threats to our identity (eg gender, sexuality, sports fandom, family, nationality, political party, or other), our response is primarily emotional.  The existential discomfort (experienced as real limbic threat) causes us to reject the challenge, be it information, policies, or other people, employing confirmation bias, rationalization, and other mental self-preservation tactics. 

So, does this mean that we must dilute or divest our personal identities in order to depolarize? Certainly not. I think it does, however, require some honest reflection on how we define and relate to our various identities. Why do we get emotionally agitated about certain topics and not others? Why do debates about abortion cause some people such agitation, and some people not? Why gun control? Immigration? Transgender and sexuality issues? What is it about any particular topic, and how I identify with it, that triggers me? How does it define my in- and out-groups? And how does this constellation of thought, emotion, and behavior affect my personal well-being, relationships, social standing and security? As a result, how to I contribute to divisions or affiliations in my own social circles, and society at large through my words and actions? How much do I care about that last part?

Intrinsic psychological safety means feeling solidly grounded in my core values and the practices that manifest them—it’s a sense of quiet, confident, unassailability.  To me it means cultivating a growth mindset, confident that I am at the same time rooted down and branching out- embracing and navigating the paradox of personal conviction and intellectual humility and flexibility.  Challenging my beliefs then becomes a personal practice of learning, integrating, and cultivating complexity and depth to my opinions, beliefs, and perspectives.  I stir and knead, exercise and expand my mental elasticity and range.  Rather than diluting my positions, all of this training can actually strengthen my understanding, expression, and agility in defense of them.  It gives me the confidence to seek and welcome challenges, knowing that I have enough internal clarity to maintain my core values and also integrate important nuances that may edify them. It is a product of disciplined self-development.

In confident humility mindset, I understand that my position is not, in fact, the only ‘right’ one; it is simply one of many. “Everybody’s right, and only partially,” was one of my first life coaching lessons back in 2005, and has served me well. This mindset allows us to think of ourselves and our opinions as ‘also right.’ It frees us from the burden of having to prove ourselves or exert power over others to convert them. It opens space and time to find middle paths for creativity, collaboration, and connection.

Wonderful!  Now we know how to depolarize ourselves—how to gracefully (even joyfully) integrate personal conviction and intellectual flexibility, perhaps even to move towards advocacy without alienation.  So what holds us back from practicing these skills outwardly, vocally, especially within our own tribes?  Tune in to Part 3 on Extrinsic Psychological Safety, to consider consequences and rewards of standing up and speaking out. 

Calling All Depolarizers!  Part 1:  Who Are They (We)?

Whom in your circles would you identify as depolarizers, political or otherwise, either naturally and/or by effortful intention? 

What makes them so, and how do you think they would respond to a call to communion with fellow depolarizers?  What would that call even sound like?

How much do you see yourself as a depolarizer?

We could consider ‘boundary spanner’ as a synonym to ‘depolarizer.’  These people see and understand, at least partially, more than one side of an issue or conflict.  More importantly, they respect and value each perspective.  They listen empathetically, validate our feelings, and express (or at least seek) understanding, even if they disagree with our beliefs or positions.  Talking to them, we feel seen, heard, understood, and accepted—even loved.  Our breathing slows, our muscles relax.  What happens next is the best part—we ourselves may become more likely to also listen, empathize, understand, and validate opinions or experiences other than our own.  And voilà, we de-escalate, and the distance between us diminishes.

Effective depolarizers practice three key skills:

  1. Self-awareness: Of their own biases, triggers, core values, tendencies in conversation and groups, etc. They own these traits/patterns, and acknowledge them freely, visibly, without judgement or shame. They understand how these traits may skew their perspectives.
  2. Self-regulation: They manage their own personality traits and biases, set and maintain healthy boundaries, attune to their own needs and honor them, also out loud and visibly. They monitor the heat and tension of interactions in service of maintaining healthy relationship and personal integrity at the same time.
  3. They ask excellent questions, based on deep listening and sincere curiosity, and that are meant to deepen/broaden/add texture to conversation in relationship and connection. Their questions defuse and disarm, and invite calmer, more thoughtful reflection and engagement.

Hostage negotiators deploy these skills with precision in very high stakes encounters.  Then again, so do effective divorce mediators, middle school teachers, and parents of toddlers and adolescents, no?

So really, don’t we all have a little depolarizer in us somewhere? Do we not all have the innate capacity to relate to all other humans, to connect, through our shared needs and experiences? It is not that depolarizers have no convictions, are wishy-washy on issues, and can just be swayed from one side to another and back again. It’s that they (we) do not constantly need to be right, to convince everybody to see the world as we do, to persuade or convert. We advance our causes in various ways, not the least of which is enrolling others by way of coalition building around shared interests and goals. Depolarizers amplify connections rather than sow divisions. We focus more on growing ‘us’ than demonizing ‘them’.

So what keeps our inner depolarizer in the closet when it comes to sensitive topics like abortion, immigration, religion, and politics in general?  Or in family conflict and workplace politics?  I posit that it has, at least partially, to do with two levels of psychological safety: intrinsic and extrinsic.  More on these ideas in the next two posts!

Check Thyself

More off the cuff than usual today, friends. It’s been a year so far, with few signs of relief upcoming. Breathing deeply:

Do you speak and act out of fear and a strong desire for control, in situations where you cannot have it?

Signs that this may be happening to you:

1. Your muscles get tense

2. Your chest feels tight

3. You feel your heart thumping

4. Your ears ring

5. Your speech becomes louder, higher pitched, faster

6. You feel ANGRY, especially if it’s sudden and intense rage

7. You interrupt people and start gesturing more

8. You feel self-righteous

9. You feel certain that everybody around you is stupid, ignorant, and/or either out to get you personally or totally corrupt and willing to destroy anything in their path to forward their own interests

10. You feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained after a brief encounter

What else?

Words spoken and actions taken in the throes of active emotional hijack can wreak lasting damage on our relationships, social function, and collective culture. The emotions themselves, however, are temporary. They serve to call our attention to something we need to address, something important to our safety, security, and well-being.

How we address the somethings is key to our personal and relational success or failure.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are the core skills to train here.

Some tips (from dialectical behavior therapy [DBT] and elsewhere):

–Ride the waves of emotion like an expert surfer—balance atop them as they complete their natural journey to dissipate on shore, delivering you to the beach again and again

–Check the FACTS of the situation–distinguish between what can be observed and described objectively and what you assume/judge/project subjectively–recognize how you may have it wrong

–BREATHE. Deep breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, countering the activating effects of fight or flight. Slow, steady breathing grounds us and allows us to see, hear, and think more clearly

–Ask yourself, “How will what I’m about to say/do really make things better in the long run, and at what cost?”

–Slow down. Count to ten. Call a time out. Step away. If it’s worth saying or doing, it can wait this little bit.

More and more I see impulsive behaviors, in reaction to acute on chronic individual and collective stress, destroying relationships and shredding our social fabric. It’s so frustrating, mostly because I see it as so preventable.

Self-awareness and self-regulation:  The concepts are simple. The skills acquisition and execution constitute a lifelong pursuit of wildly imperfect mastery.

YES, things are shitty everywhere. YES, we are justified, if only partially, in our fear, anger, frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction.

AND we can choose, at any time, to manage these intensely uncomfortable emotions in ways that either connect us in solidarity and cooperation or divide us in mutual denigration and destruction.

Recognize emotional hijack. Breathe through it.   

Let us speak and act from our core values ahead of impulsive, fearful, and self-righteous rage.

And let us thank one another for the effort.

Read more along these lines from one of my heroes, Brene Brown.