We are finally coming to the end of this presidential election cycle. It has been long and brutal. This column was written prior to the election, so the results were not yet known, but that hardly matters. Whichever candidate becomes president, we have some serious bridgebuilding work to do.
Much of what has been reported at the national level during the past several years has focused on sowing divisiveness. So many media sources want our attention, and dramatic conflict is a great attention-grabber. Everything is exaggerated for maximum shock value. Fears are promoted and manipulated.
But we’re all in this together and must find a way to work with those who have very different ideas about what needs to happen. We have to put things into perspective. While this campaign has been extremely divisive, remembering the horrendous events of the Civil War can give us pause to reflect on how bad it once got.
It’s not that we are bad people – in fact, we are good most of the time. We are just so busy and the issues are so complex, that we try to simplify to make sense of it all. One way to do that is to pick a stream of information that feels comfortable to us, out of the hundreds now available, and just listen to that. Comfortable means non-threatening and known, so we often choose streams that reinforce ideas we already hold.
With so many sources of news, we can now stay in our own little information bubbles. We get out of the habit of listening to those who hold different views. Before long, we start to defend our own preferred ideas as the only truth. We begin to see not only other ideas, but the people who hold them, as threatening. Once we feel threatened, our brains start thinking of ways to protect ourselves from Those Other People. Sometimes we even see a good offense as the best defense and become threatening to others.
As the Civil War so vividly reminds us, that seldom ends well.
So, what can we do? We can choose to counteract the drama. To decrease drama, we should pay attention to the words we use, even when we’re upset. We can avoid distortions in the things we say and avoid using misleading words like “never” and “always”. The vast majority of our communication is non-verbal, so we can choose to pay attention to how we say whatever we say. We may moderate our tone of voice, avoid disrespectful behaviors (rolling our eyes, snorting, and disdainful sighs), and refrain from interrupting.
We can use our best listening skills: separating the person expressing ideas from the ideas they are expressing; cutting people some slack for not expressing themselves eloquently; looking to see what important needs are not being met for others and what needs they are trying to meet through their positions on issues; seeing the good intentions in others.
It also doesn’t hurt to stand back and question our own thoughts. We can allow ourselves to listen to views different from our own. We can even listen to what others say about our favorite ideas! Surely our ideas are strong enough to survive some questioning, and they will likely even improve with some fresh air.
It takes courage to listen to others and consider changing our ideas. Yet this is the home of the brave, so let’s challenge each other to see how well we can move away from this divisiveness and get along better.