Perhaps the most serious collateral damage from this year’s can’t-wait-until-it’s-over election season might be our ability to bridge differences. The ability to bridge differences and converse constructively is essential to the survival of our organizations and communities, our democracy, and, most likely, the world as we know it. By “constructive,” I mean conversing in ways that strengthen our capacity to get good things done together. Although survival for our long-ago ancestors depended on being part of a family or tribe, it now depends on effectively engaging with those whom we perceive as being outside our tribe or group.
In the face of difference, especially when the issues at hand are important to us, we can easily become anxious, even angry, as the more primitive parts of the brain take charge and drive us to do combat, flee the scene, or play possum. We get frightened because difference makes things unpredictable and uncertain. We feel unsafe and engage ineffectively, often polarizing people. Although we might appear okay on the surface, access to the executive functions in the brain become diminished. This means we have difficulty understanding new ideas, making conscious decisions, and managing our social behavior.
However, we don’t have to be driven by habits of self-protection. We can notice anxiety brewing, put on the back burner preconceived “truths” about “those people” and focus on our direct experience of them in the moment. The very act of engaging often alleviates our fears. Ironically, the source and solution to our fears about interacting with people who differ from us is one and the same thing: Engage with them. Engaging with those who differ from us can dispel the fears and myths we have about “those other people” and reveal common ground where we might have assumed there is none.
Engaging constructively with people who differ from us entails good process and self-management skills to help you and others feel safe. Some of these skills include clarifying what you are trying to accomplish, agreeing on ground rules, listening attentively, and asking good questions.
How do you prepare or manage yourself when you interact with people who differ from you? I’d like to hear your story in the comments below.
This blog is based my recently released book Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time, now available exclusively through FriesenPress. Click here to order your copy now!