How to Politely Disagree, According to Science
by Michelle Kinder
After an election that was glaringly short on tolerance and compassion, it’s clear we need a new kind of public conversation, where we learn to reach beyond the comforts of people who already think like us, to listen and talk in new ways. This seems daunting. But as a family therapist, I find it heartening to know that practicing social and emotional health in our own homes, even in small ways, can lay the groundwork for a return to civility and connection. In my field, a theory known as “family systems” argues that creating change anywhere in the family can improve the entire system. Think of the country in this light — as a family. By using three key tactics of social and emotional health, we can take a strong next step toward a healthier society.
1. Beware the Amygdala Hijack.You over-react. We all do. It happens. But understanding the neurobiology of over-reaction can help us bring our best selves to difficult situations. When differences seem unbridgeable, the amygdala — part of the brain’s primitive limbic system — can hijack the pre-frontal cortex, the home of rational thinking. This overload activates the fight, flight or freeze response and makes it impossible for us to see the situation with clear eyes. When triggered like this, we say or do things we normally wouldn’t. But we can train our brains to note when this is happening. With that heightened awareness, we can choose to handle it differently. Without it, we react out of habit and can damage our relationships. In discussions with people who have different beliefs, pay attention to physical clues, like your heart racing. Awareness strengthens your capacity to recover quickly, maintain calm and keep thinking. It won’t resolve issues instantly, but it can create safety so you can continue solving the problem in the future.
2. Approach differences with genuine curiosity. When we see someone new, our brains identify them as either an “outsider” or part of our group—in less than a thousandth of a second. Such snap judgments impair our capacity to listen with genuine curiosity — which, as StoryCorp’s Dave Isay argues, is one of the most powerful gifts we can give other people and ourselves. Listen to family or strangers with curiosity, not judgment. This will transform them in your mind from a flat caricature to a three-dimensional human being. This makes it easier to accept everyone’s flawed complexity, including our own.
3. Model clarity and courage. A subset of Americans interpreted the election results as permission to engage more openly in hate crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded some 900 incidents of harassment in November alone — many occurring in schools, where all kids ought to feel safe. To create families, communities and a public culture that welcome and encourage conflicting points of view, be clear about non-negotiables like racism or sweeping judgments. Call attention to acts of intolerance, both publicly and in your own daily life. Speak out against slurs and jokes that target groups of people. We should respect context and the past by researching and understanding our history of civil unrest. Our kids need to see us valuing diversity and developing intergroup friendships — and to see us challenging our assumptions and growing in the process.
Culture develops in a dual process: From top-down and bottom-up, one interaction and one intention at a time. We have a lot of work to do. But we can’t underestimate our personal and community power in setting the tone for our national conversation and fostering tolerance and compassion.