For the last four years or so I’ve been delivering keynotes about depolarizing dialogues. I’ve shared stories and techniques for navigating issues like political divides and workplace conflicts, mainly applicable in the highly polarized U.S.
My soul sings when I do this work and I feel inspired by the results.
At times, however, I observe hesitancy in some folks to engage in depolarizing conversations. And they have some valid fears! They wonder, “Will I have to water down my views? Will I be forced to come to agreement with the other side? Who holds the power in the conversation? Will I be complicit in supporting a harmful view?”
To help address these fears, I’d like to offer my perspective on a few of the myths of depolarizing dialogues. These myths may hold us back from having conversations that could save our family relationships or even our society. Please note that these myths are written from a U.S. perspective and may vary in other cultures.
Myth #1: Depolarizing dialogues are about civility and being nice
While civility might be a biproduct of depolarizing dialogues, it is not the primary goal. Humans tend to escalate conflict in fairly predictable ways. To foster healthy conversations across difference, facilitators often institute ground rules that help short circuit the most unhelpful behaviors. Participants, however, are encouraged to express their difficulties and even strong emotions. Getting frustrated or upset may very well be part of the process, but proven depolarizing techniques help you express those feelings constructively.
Myth #2: You have to reach agreement or consensus
Quite the contrary. I recently got accepted to become a moderator with Braver Angels, a non-profit that teaches skills for bridging political divides (www.braverangels.org). Under their description of the Braver Angels Way, the first line reads “We state ours views freely and fully, without fear.” Depolarizing dialogues allow you to express your views firmly without demonizing or dehumanizing “the other side.” Agreement or consensus are not necessary or even encouraged.
Myth #3: I have to water down my views to have a successful depolarizing dialogue
You may find that your views soften or even shift, but again, that is not the goal. In fact, many of the techniques in depolarization allow us to express strong views but without emotions and escalation running the show. The human brain can be very reactive which may cause you to say things that do not even accurately represent your views. Learning depolarization skills often leads us to be more truthful and precise in our dialogues.
Myth #4: Having a dialogue with someone who holds what I consider harmful views is complicity
Depolarizing dialogues are always a choice. We have the right to self-determination, to walk away if we feel something has crossed the line. When we listen to opposing views, even those we might consider harmful, we are listening not for agreement, but for nuance. Perhaps there is more to that view than meets the eye. Perhaps we have a blind spot ourselves where that view is concerned. Or perhaps after listening and discussing, we feel even more strongly about our own view and are more equipped to take action. The decision about what to do next remains yours.
In Braver Angels, one of our guiding principles is to disagree accurately, avoiding exaggeration and stereotypes. They state, “We believe that, in disagreements, both sides share and learn.”
Now is the time to take one small step toward depolarizing ourselves, our families, and our nation. We cannot afford to wait.
If you’d like to learn more about you can depolarize your workplace or community, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.