…”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 do 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.