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!

“People Don’t Care…

Lily Pad Lake trail weather coming

…how much you know until they know how much you care.”   –Teddy Roosevelt (the most common attribution—but at this point, who knows?)

Friends, I had a great conversation on Facebook this week that really made me think!  I have pasted it below so you can decide what you think of it—please share your impressions, as my own have evolved as I reread it.

I initially shared an article by Ozan Varol entitled, “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds.  Here’s What Does”.  In it he outlines steps to help others and ourselves change our minds rather than dig in:

  1. Make it psychologically safe to admit they (or we) were wrong before—stop shaming one another for our diverse beliefs
  2. Disentangle ourselves from our beliefs—hold them loosely rather than in identity-defining death grips
  3. Practice empathy
  4. Exit our echo chambers

I thought this was all pretty good, and my friend agreed that the method is effective, and also ‘morally ambiguous.’  At the end of the conversation my understanding of his perspective (again, please see for yourself below) is that he opposes ‘tricking’ people by manipulating their emotions into agreeing with us, while ignoring facts and evidence.  I agree with this opposition, and I also see this article as not actually suggesting we do this.

Basically it got me thinking:  It’s not that we can either argue/convince with facts or we can’t.  It’s that we have to make a personal, emotional connection before someone in opposition can be open to our facts and evidence.  This is not an either/or proposition.  It is both/and, as most things are.

After the two-day thread concluded I felt an urge to listen again to Never Split the Difference, a book on negotiation by Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator.  Funny how that came up…  In it he references Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman describes two aspects of mind, System I, our intuitive, limbic, subconscious mind, and System II, our rational, logical, cognitive mind.  Voss’s and the FBI’s most successful negotiation strategies are founded on the understanding that System I is the primary driver of human behavior and action, though we would like to think otherwise.  This reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of the mind as an elephant (System I) and a rider (System II).  He also posits that though we assume the rider steers the elephant, really the elephant goes where it wants and the rider rationalizes the path.

None of this is meant as a negative judgment on humanity or to say that we are not the super-intelligent, creative, and highest order creatures we claim to be.  It is simply the reality of how our minds work, a consequence of evolution for individual survival and tribal living.  When confronted with someone I perceive as an enemy (someone who shames me, threatens my sense of self and belonging, even if unintentionally), why in the world would I open my mind and experience to her point of view, even it would benefit me in practical terms?  Under threat of attack (of my ideas, beliefs, and identity), the elephant will stampede and trample, not stop, put its snout to its forehead, and consider thoughtfully.  But if my own tribe member, whom I already trust implicitly and with whom I feel relaxed and open, encourages me to change our usual path to the water hole because she has found one that bypasses the lion pride, I am far more open to the idea.

Similarly, if we consider ‘changing our minds’ as analogous to behavior change, we see how knowing the facts and evidence is definitely not enough to change anything.  I know I should eat less if I want to lose weight.  I know added sugars and simple starches are not healthful staples for my diet.  I know that eating late wrecks my metabolism.  So why do I still eat big, yummy brownies at 10PM?  Some days I can muster the motivation to head off self-sabotage; other days not so much.  I stress eat, especially when I’m sleep deprived.  So now I’m also listening again to Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.  They propose a three-pronged approach to behavior change at the individual, organizational, and societal levels:  1. Direct the Rider (know the facts and have them ready to present).  2. Motivate the Elephant (find meaning for motivation).  3. Shape the Path (make it easy, remove obstacles).  All of these articles and books reflect the same reality: we are emotional beings who think, in that order.

Of course changing people’s minds, especially about emotionally charged and controversial ideas, is hard!  And of course facts and evidence are crucial and we absolutely should not ignore or abondon them!  And, we would all benefit from practicing a little more generosity, patience, empathy, kindness, and charity in our approach to one another—whether we’re trying to change minds or not.

 

*    *   *   *

CC

Friends, please read.
Applies to vaccines, politics, family conflicts, and relationship communication in general.

 

JM

I’m a total believer in the successfulness of this philosophy as a general rule, and I also find it Machiavellian and morally troubling. A great many people have a severely limited ability to understand the facts they believe. They can hold contradictory views easily and they prize simplistic notions of tribal loyalty, common sense vs actual knowledge and nostalgia for a past that never existed. Until we prize critical thinking as a a skill, we won’t display it as a people. And of course, this article correctly but tragically argues that since we don’t, and since we all just walk along blasting confirmation bias all over the place, it’s pointless to attempt persuasion with critical thinking skills and one should instead seek to trick people into doing what’s right through revisionist personal histories (you aren’t responsible for your past failures in critical thinking) and personalized sales pitches (who cares about the principled notions of the greater good or what’s just! Let’s talk about you and your family’s short term best interests!)

 

CC

Thanks, Jonathan. I wonder what you think of this post that I wrote, then?https://catherinechengmd.com/…/talking-to-the-opposed…/

 

JM

In this article you don’t have a clearly stated goal. So while I gather that you support vaccination, you don’t seem too bothered by patients who opt not to vaccinate. I see this as raising a question. If you learned that a parent was deliberately harming a child you wouldn’t casually suggest the idea that next year you revisit the benefits of not abusing kids. You’d act. You’d report. You’d get authorities involved. You’d protect the kids, even against the parents wishes. And you would do it now. So as I said, it raises the question: how bad is it to not vaccinate? Your article implies that it’s not that bad. In fact, you give two examples of outcomes: one of a child who gets autism and one of a child who gets whooping cough. Can you see how this implies balance in the perspectives? Are these views equally valid? Sympathy towards the emotional struggle of making the right decisions for kids should not be conflated with sympathy for endangering children -both one’s own and others in the community. Is there reasonable doubt about whether vaccines cause autism or not? That’s not only testable but actually repeatedly and widely tested already. Let me state it in reverse: I currently vaccinate but if verifiable scientific evidence started raining doubts about whether vaccines caused autism, I would want my doctor to tell me ASAP and explain it emphatically and with little regard to my previously erroneously held belief.

 

CC 

Thanks for your feedback, Jonathan. I actually do state a clear goal: “my primary objective is actually to cultivate our relationship.” Of course I think it’s harmful to both the child and the community to not vaccinate. I am absolutely bothered by non- and anti-vaxxers (as evidenced by multiple posts on this page). And I also have to take into account the likely outcomes of my actions. My goal is to get everybody vaccinated, no question. But demanding it now, as if it’s really the same as witnessing a parent beating a child physically, is not often productive. I have learned in multiple relationship settings that chasing agreement and acquiescence gets me the opposite result. In this case, taking the long view and strategy, with a soft front, works.  Just this flu season, I estimate my ‘conversion’ rate at about 60-70%, which I assess as successful. And I did so while maintaining and strengthening the physician-patient relationship, which is even better. And for those who continue to defer vaccination, at least they are still with me and I have more chances to continue the conversation and eventually make an impact. To me that’s worth a little waiting in the short term, which could be long term waiting and making people dig in harder against, if I came at them too aggressively.

 

JM

all that sounds great. My comments were only about that article, not your actions.

 

CC

Huh, okay… The article I wrote speaks directly to my actions, so I am not sure what the distinction is? Regardless, I respect your opinion so I hope I have your confidence in me as a physician and a steward of public health.

 

JM

you do!
—next day—

CC

 I’m beating the dead horse! Feel free to ignore. Here is an article along the same lines, which I saved at the time it was published. Interesting to read it again now.https://hbr.org/…/how-to-build-an-exit-ramp-for-trump…

 

JM

Yup. Same deal. Machiavellian. Ends justify means. Critical thinking is not taught or valued so let’s ditch it in favor of methods that are effective at achieving the desired result. That may actually achieve the most social good in the end. But it’s still morally ambiguous. When does an elephant in the room become so large that you simply can’t claim not to have seen it? Must we always pretend that it’s reasonable to have thought it was a grey desk to give people an out? These articles seem to say yes. They might be right. I’m just not happy about it.

 

Oh, and I do apply this to “both sides”. There is a position I’ve heard espoused on the Left that argues that holding people accountable for stupidity is a form of prejudice. <insert shock face emoji here> It’s apparently “ableist”. And that it’s inappropriate to expect people to all be able to reason and know things. Any things. That one leaves me speechless. It seems more about a race to decry the most possible prejudices than an attempt to help improve our world. Virtue signaling. I’M SO WOKE! I’M EVEN MORE WOKE! I WOKE UP WOKE!

 

CC

Thank you for engaging, Jonathan! Your perspective is so interesting to me, I don’t see it these strategies as nearly as manipulative as you see them. To me, they are enlightening paths of empathy, leading to clearer and more compassionate, understanding communication. Underlying the methods I see an implication that we all may be more open-minded than we know, if given space and connection to explore alternative perspectives to our own. The methods themselves are simply a way to uncover and allow that openness, and thus possibility for change and growth, to emerge. If one practices these strategies with NO commitment to a particular outcome, but simply for the sake of continuing a conversation or relationship–an exchange of perspectives for mutual understanding and respect–if we all practiced this we all might end up changing, little by little, for the better, and better together.

 

JM

We’d be more open to dialogue in the non-judgmental world you describe. But, while it’s popular to embrace profound egalitarianism as positive, that is a disaster in practice. Not every viewpoint should enjoy the same privileges. For instance, slavery is a viewpoint. Might makes right is a viewpoint. The Nazis had a viewpoint. Should these all be engaged with with respect for a differing worldview? I don’t think so. Determining your actual reason for why not is key. It’s because we believe deep down in hierarchies. Even egalitarians tend to believe that egalitarianism is BETTER than non-egalitarianism. There is a Buddhist parable in which the student asks: “If we meet bandits on the road, and they try to kills us, how are we to act compassionately as our noble truths dictate?” The teacher answers “You must cut them down with your sword, compassionately.”

 

CC

I agree with everything you write here. But is this not a tangent? Do any of these articles or any of my comments claim that all viewpoints are equal? This conversation is not about ‘profound egalitarianism’ and its merits or lack thereof. Being slightly more open minded and empathetic toward our fellow humans (which is the point of these articles, in my view) does not equal throwing away all forms of morality and ethics, absolving ourselves of any and all judgment, or elevating slavery, xenophobia, and genocide to anything remotely acceptable. So I’m curious. When you encounter people whose opinion or whatever is opposed to your own, how do you engage? What are your objectives when you interact with them on these topics? For instance on this thread–why are you still here? You go first and then I’ll tell you mine. 

 

JM

Firstly, I’m arguing from the edges. Is an approach sound? You can test it by how it handles just such situations. The articles discuss a successful methodology for achieving a change in position. You can describe that most generously as sympathetic openness combined with non-confrontation. That is presented for its effectiveness. When I engage with people with differing opinions, it matters greatly what the opinions are. I evaluate them based on the soundness of the facts and theory underlying them. When more sound than my own, I change my views. When less sound, I can safely place them back in the bin of the disproven, false or less effective. I’m typically delighted to be convinced of a new position. I don’t view all positions as being basically equal. I view positions as very often being hierarchical. Some are intrinsically better than others. That means when I change position for just reasons, I am improving myself and the world at large. My engagement here is based on the warmth of our relationship and the desire to see higher truths recognized wherever possible -the ultimate purpose of information exchange. If the real purpose of the articles is to “be suuuuuuper nice before and while presenting your logic” then that’s just “getting more bees with honey than vinegar”. I don’t disagree. But some part reads to me like an acceptance of tribalism. In other words, this system doesn’t increase the likelihood of the “right” answer or the just answer. Just the answer of the person most effectively using the technique.

 

CC

THANK YOU, I understand you much better now!! I very much appreciate what you wrote here, and I wholeheartedly agree, especially with the self-improvement part. You have elevated my point of view and I will refer back to this conversation often now! So on my end, I engaged because I noticed myself feeling defensive and I wanted to understand what I was feeling a need to defend against. Now I don’t feel defensive at all, and I am so glad we continued the exchange! Big hugs, old friend! 😀