These are polarizing times, where multiple issues are viewed in black-and-white terms, and people end up split into camps, each camp seeing the other as the enemy. Whether the topic is political affiliation, the pandemic and vaccines, social justice, the former president, policing, or race, it seems to have become increasingly difficult for people to have useful conversations. The rhetoric becomes so heated that a civilized exchange of ideas becomes extremely difficult if not impossible. This air of acrimony and stubbornness is manifested not only in strangers sniping at each other on social media, but is also shown to have a more personal cost – friendships, marriages, and other family relationships have been harmed or even terminated because of disagreements over these complex and emotion-laden topics (Brooks, 2020; Smith, 2020). This raises the question of whether it’s useful, or even possible to converse about such issues. One option we have is to limit ourselves to talking only with people who share our point of view – this is certainly safer and more gratifying. Another choice is to decide to just not talk about these things. This is not a new concept – there’s an old saying about the hazards of discussing religion or politics at family gatherings or other social settings. But if we disagree with someone we have an important relationship with, these can seem unsatisfying options. What if we really want to have a discussion about differences, in order to understand and be understood? Is there a way to increase the odds of having a conversation about different perspectives that doesn’t lead to frustration, anger and name-calling? Of course there is -- or this would be a very short article. And it begins with having a specific goal in mind, that being to understand the other. If we hope to change the other person’s position or help them see how mistaken they are (or how correct we are), our mission is likely doomed from the start. Staying away from this particular agenda is easier said than done, of course – we tend to become very attached to our own opinions and beliefs, and we naturally believe that our own ways of thinking are most reasonable. But if we can summon an attitude of curiosity – the desire to better understand why people think what they think and feel what they feel -- we will be better equipped to stay on course. There is also a specific tool for guiding us to have better conversations, and it comes from the field of couples therapy. In their classic book Getting the Love You Want: A guide for couples, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt describe a structured way for couples to communicate, which they call the Imago Dialogue. The goal of this model is to create safety through structure, and to help couples better understand each other in order to improve connection and help resolve differences.
Two of the key elements of the Dialogue are mirroring and validation. Mirroring means repeating back what you heard the other person say, in order to confirm that you heard them correctly: “So what I heard you say is (repeating person’s words back) -- Did I hear that right?” Or, “Am I getting you?” When you are mirroring someone, you are not challenging or correcting anything they say – you are only trying to understand their words or thoughts. Mirroring the other person is not saying that you agree with them – again, you’re only trying to understand. Why does this help? When you mirror someone you have differences with, you are creating a space for that person to express themselves – a space where they don’t have to worry about being interrupted, disagreed with, or judged. This turns out to be a comforting, even soothing experience – when we feel listened to and understood, we can relax our defenses. And just maybe, if you take the time to hear the person you disagree with, they will return the favor. Another key element of Dialogue – validation -- is a way of expressing to the other person that their way of looking at something makes some kind of sense to you. Again, it is not agreeing per se – although of course it’s quite easy to validate someone that you agree with. But the essence of validation is the realization that there is more than one way to think and believe about something. So, in a validation response, you might say something like, “Well, I have a different perspective on this issue. But given what you’ve told me about your beliefs and your experiences, I can see why you feel the way you do about it – it makes sense to me.” For some issues, validation may feel like an impossible task. If someone’s perspective contains ideas or beliefs that we find so offensive because they run counter to our own core values, we may not be able to find the sense in it. And we may just need to exit that conversation. But making the effort to try to understand, wherever we can, is worthwhile because it conveys a tone of respect for someone whose ideas are different from our own – and respect is something we could use more of these days. Smith, T. 2020, October 27. ‘Dude, I’m done’: When politics tears families and friendships apart. NPR, All things considered. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/27/928209548/dude-i-m-done-when-politics-tears-families-and-friendships-apart Brooks, Arthur C. (2020, October 8). Reading too much political news is bad for your well-being. The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/10/reading-too-much-political-news-bad-happiness/616651/ Hendrix, H. and LaKelly Hunt, H. (2019). Getting the love you want: A guide for couples. (Rev. ed.).St. Martin’s Press. - Mark Vogel, Psy.D., Ext. 318