This has been a fascinating, exciting, frustrating and scary week in the United States. Which of those emotions are strongest in you probably depends on, like so many other things in our country right now, your political leanings. This week has been all of those things for me, and more… a really emotional and complicated time.
Those who know me well, know that I don’t hide my leanings, and instead prefer to put them out there, in the spirit of complete transparency. I find it easier to have a discussion about a hard topic if you don’t have to wonder what my “angle” is.
So, since we are about to talk about some big things, let’s get a few things out of the way… this post will be easier if we do. For those who don’t recall or who are newer to this blog, here’s my “angle”: I am the very definition of an “unaffiliated independent” voter. In fact, I like to think of myself as a pragmatic centrist. I became an independent several years ago after many years as a registered Republican. The reasons for my switch to independent were largely because of the changing tone of the political conversation, and the widening gap between the parties. Neither party really represented me anymore. In fact, I have voted in 8 presidential elections in my lifetime, four times for each major political party. So I am not only unaffiliated in title, but also in behavior.
And most fundamentally, I believe our current challenges are a lot more complicated than either political party would have us believe.
My company and our entire approach to communication is based on a few very simple beliefs: that communication is critical for all elements of society; that communication is based on connection and understanding; and that an open mind is required for connection and understanding to occur. In everything we teach our clients, we come back to the same basic premise — that the more we understand the people we are trying to communicate with, the easier it is. Understanding is at the basis of literally everything we do. And I am intensely proud of how my team and our company enter the world.
But while our ideas get a lot of traction in the workplace, (and we have all the data to prove that traction), outside of the workplace, the world feels much less certain to me. At this moment in time, I see people willing to communicate with respect for each other in the workplace, about work issues. But outside of the workplace, about social and political issues, the rules seem to be completely different. And that scares me. Daily. Intensely. The connective tissue of society requires successful communication and connection. Without it, things fall apart.
I recently read a detailed study conducted by social scientists from eleven universities and across six different disciplines — political science, psychology, sociology, economics, management, and computational social science. And their findings were not only frightening to me, they also matched up exactly with my daily experience. What I see anecdotally every day matches exactly with what they proved scientifically.
There are several findings of note in the report:
- Americans’ level of warmth towards their own political party has remained level since the 1970s; but for the first time ever, our negative feelings towards the other party are stronger than our warmth for our own side. In other words, our hatred for the other is stronger than our love for our own.
- Adherents to one party increasingly, and especially since 2012, see those who vote the other way as not just different, but less moral, less trustworthy, and unrecognizable.
- But, quite predictably, many of the impressions of the other side are not based in fact. The report contains many examples of fundamental misunderstandings of the other side.
So what am I writing about? Is it the election? Sort of. Politics in general? Sort of. What I am really writing about is a breakdown in communication across society, and a broad unwillingness to entertain any idea that contradicts our own entrenched belief set. I see it everywhere, with people across my life, from both sides. An absolute unwillingness to even discuss.
Here are some real examples of recent conversations:
- I have had ultra conservative friends refer to me as a “closet socialist” and ultra liberal friends refer to me as a “closet fascist.” My sin? In all cases, I simply tried to introduce the idea that not everyone on the other side fits neatly under the label being applied. (And by the way, while I stretch and work on my agility everyday, I am not enough of a contortionist to be a socialist and a fascist at the same time. I know enough to know that those two accusations are pretty much mutually exclusive.)
- I have had several recent conversations end abruptly, with friends of mine, with statements like “if you are about to suggest ___________ to me, this is going to be a very short conversation.” In other words, “I have absolutely no interest in hearing a competing thought, even from a well-informed, well-intentioned friend.”
- I have been deleted from email threads, unfriended on social media, or felt a new-found social chilliness from people in my life when I simply challenged a blanket statement that I felt went too far. I even had one where my sin was making a “both sides are flawed” argument. Even the centrist position was completely unacceptable, not just the opposite position.
I am neither a social or political scientist, nor an economist. And while I occasionally play a supportive psychological role for my clients, I am not a psychologist either. What I am is a coach who thinks about, studies and teaches communication all day long, and have for nearly twenty years. My entire approach to my personal and professional life is about building connections with people around me, and the nurturing of the communication skills that facilitate connection. And here is what I know, with absolute certainty… if we don’t develop once again the ability to listen, understand, and connect, we have some dark days ahead. Our current problems are not based on the presence of any one elected official, or any one party. Our problems are a lot more fundamental than that. The problem is not the other side. The problem is a retreat to our own side, with all information coming within our own social and media echo chambers, and everything in our lives reinforcing what we already believe to be true.
What’s the solution to all of this? I am not entirely sure. The only thing we can individually control is how each of us enters the world, and the things we each do every day. So let’s try this on and see how it fits…
Here is my commitment to solving this societal communication problem:
- I will judge you based on how you treat people and me… not how you vote. Your vote is none of my business, and not how I will view you.
- We can disagree, even about big things. All I ask is that we meet each other with an open mind and respect.
- I won’t live my life in a bubble only surrounded by people who agree with me. That is not healthy, for me or for my community.
Those are my rules. Maybe if enough of us adopt rules like these, we can start to repair some of our broken connections.
I share all of this with you, in the greatest of hope. Stay safe, and have a great day.
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