Why developing the ability to understand an opposing viewpoint is important, and how we might go about it.
After a decade or so of comparative calm (or was that my imagination?), a whole series of rifts have emerged in contemporary society: Brexit v Remain, Trump v non-Trump, women’s right to choose v pro-life, neo-liberalism versus interventionism, climate crisis v climate change denial and so on.
A healthy debate around such matters is the essence of democracy and progress, but lately the rhetoric has become ever more vitriolic from both sides with a tendency to polarisation: the assumption of extreme views and the vilification of the opposing standpoint. Bill Bishop’s book, The Big Sort, highlighted the phenomenon of political migration, which is the ultimate outworking of this.
Why polarisation is unhealthy
I would contend that this is not a good thing for our society. It means that millions of people are walking around with resentment and unforgiveness for one another, a situation a psychologist would describe as ‘unfinished business.’ This saps our emotional energy, which means there is less available for more creative pursuits, such as work, love, friendship, relaxation, and reflection. (For more on emotional bandwidth see my book Compassionate Leadership)
Secondly, it’s seriously bad for our cognitive development. If we choose to live only with people who think the same as we do, our brains are going to become lazy. There’s no need to develop the ability to examine other positions intelligently or to consider the lens of values through which we are taking our own.
Finally, I have seen it create fault lines through families, friendship groups, churches, and businesses, weakening those relationships and social networks on which our psychological health depends.
Be the change you want to see
How can we take action on this? Our conventional image of a peacemaker is one who mediates between people with opposing views, with the objective of coming to some accommodation. Think Tony Blair (Northern Ireland), Henry Kissinger (Vietnam and the Yom Kippur war), and Kofi Annan.
Whilst this may occasionally be effective at an organisational level, its track record at a personal level is poor. This is on account of the drama triangle that tends to develop, with one person taking the role of persecutor, another the victim and a third (the peacemaker in the first instance) the rescuer. It’s hard to step out of the triangle and, in any event, there is a sense in which you, as peacemaker, are undermining the autonomy of the two protagonists.
Moreover, unless you are a professional counsellor, invitations to work in this mediation mode are rare. More commonly the challenge we face is to live and work peaceably with people with whom we disagree. The phrase used to be “to respect one another’s opinion” or “agree to disagree.” If we really want to be the change we want to see, as advocated by Mahatma Ghandi, then we need to develop the ability to broker peace in a situation where we are one of the protagonists.
The aim is not to convert someone to your way of thinking. As my dad used to say, “Convince a man against his will, he’s of the same opinion still.” The aim is mutual understanding and respect.
The first all-important principle concerns our intent. One of the most inspiring books I have read lately is The Anteater and the Jaguar , an account of a community of Jews and Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) who, for almost 50 years, have sought to live together in Israel in peace.
Their experience has been far from conflict free, but the community has survived, not because of some marvellous model they have discovered, but primarily because they have remained steadfast in their intent to find a way. Interestingly too, the project does not have sponsorship from a third party peacemaker, governmental or otherwise, but is the outcome of the day to day interaction of the people invested in it.
Then in order to cultivate curiosity and non-judgement, it is useful to consider how we came to our own opinion on a matter. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has pointed out that in making decisions we typically start with an emotional commitment and then rationalise it.
Our emotional commitment stems from the worldview of people in close proximity to us. When we rationalise our decision, we are biased in the information we select. (This is why yet more data is not the solution: it simply allows us to select even more information that supports our pre-defined position.) A deep and honest reflection on our decision making will bear this out.
I am not saying here that every opinion is as valid as another, but rather the basis for our our self-righteous indignation and for the scorn we are tempted to pour on others has shakier foundations that we would like to believe. Acknowledging this will allow us to relax our grip on our own position.
The final thing is to pursue understanding, not to set out to change the opinion of the other person. This is partly because it is costly for people to change their mind — they may lose affiliation with a particular group, and culturally, at least in the developed world, many see changing ones mind as a sign of weakness rather than intelligence.
The way in which we achieve understanding is primarily by listening attentively to the other person, with genuine curiosity and non-judgement — Buddhists might say “with a beginner’s mind.” Exploring their opinion will be easier if we find out more about them as an individual first. Then listen to their explanation of their position without interrupting.
Once we know the other person well, we might try an experiment: put ourselves in their shoes and explain their position to them, then invite them to reciprocate. At all stages we are trying to make peace and not convert the other person to our viewpoint. Once we set out with the intention of converting our adversary, peacemaking becomes well nigh impossible.
Finally, as every hostage negotiator knows, keep talking. When the communication channels are open there is always the prospect of peace, if not now at some time in the future.
Peacemaking at a personal level is about learning to respect the views of others and developing the ability to live and work alongside them without your respective views unduly colouring your relationship.
The process of doing this involves:
Having the intent to respect the other person’s opinion
Becoming aware of how we came to our own view on the matter
Seeking to understand the other person and then understanding their opinion rather than trying to change it
Being prepared to persist, listening and talking for multiple conversations
I believe that such peacemaking can be the key to our own development, to more productive family and work relationships, and to a more integrated and civilised society.
Rizek, R. (2019) The Anteater and The Jaguar: A Story from the Oasis of Peace. CreateSpace: North Charleston, South Carolina.