Why is it that presidential election seasons bring out the absolute worst of humanity? How have we justified throwing all civility and respect aside in favor of unfettered contempt, uninformed critique, and widespread ranting about “them” – most of whom we’ve never met?
In his book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, author Arthur Brooks writes, “America is addicted to political contempt. While most of us hate what it is doing to our country and worry about how contempt coarsens our culture over the long term, many of us still compulsively consume the ideological equivalent of meth from elected officials, academics, entertainers, and some of the news media. Millions actively indulge their habit by participating in the cycle of contempt in the way they treat others, especially on social media. We wish our national debates were nutritious and substantive, but we have an insatiable craving for insults to the other side. As much as we know we should ignore the nasty columnist, turn off the TV loudmouth, and stop checking our Twitter feeds, we indulge our guilty urge to listen as our biases are confirmed that the other guys are not just wrong, but stupid and evil.”
As we all process the results of this election, you will inevitably be provoked to devolve into the worst version of yourself, and justify it with “their” idiocy. And your social media feeds will fuel your pleasure by reinforcing your echo chamber, gorging you with information, some totally fake, that amplifies your conclusions that you are right, and they are deplorable. Our increasingly polarizing political landscape has conditioned us with trigger-happy instincts to refute views we might disagree with, reject others for having those views, and convert others to our views. We have dangerously conflated speaking “your” truth with speaking “the” truth.
What if, in the aftermath of this election, we all tried to be just a bit better? What if we chose to rise to the best versions of ourselves, and relinquished our hatred for “them” in exchange for empathy and curiosity? If that’s at least a little bit appealing of a prospect, here are some things you can try to get through this time, regardless of the outcome, being able to say, “I rose above the fray and chose to act civilly and respectfully to those whose views I don’t necessarily share.”
If more of us chose that, it could have as much impact on our nation as the election itself.
Here’s how to start.
Distinguish common ground from compromise.
Too frequently, when it comes to navigating differences, people retrench on the grounds that entertaining views different from their own is equivalent to compromising their principles. We fear that accepting, which is different than agreeing with, views that oppose ours means compromising our values, or condoning beliefs and choices that contradict our moral principles. But learning to appreciate the convictions of others still allows you to hold onto your own. It allows you to respect the origins of those convictions and opens them up to respect yours. Who are the people whose views you most disagree with? Who do you readily dismiss as credible without question? Set up a time to interview them, simply to learn about their views, not to debate them. See what you can learn.
I interviewed Chris Campbell in late 2018, who enjoyed a long, esteemed career in Congress, most recently as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Institutions. He is one of the few in Congressional history to be unanimously appointed by both sides to such a significant role and was named one of Congress’ most influential staffers seven years in a row. He told me, “When working in situations where you were the political minority, you had to train your mind that there had to be a middle ground. You had to put yourself in the shoes of those who thought differently. You had to ask yourself, ‘How can we both win without compromising our principles and reach a decision that both sides consider a win?’ I spent years having to do that in order to get anything done.”
Assume that opposing views are legitimate.
No matter how outlandish they seem, start by assuming that views you don’t share are valid simply because the person with whom you differ holds them. Learn to be curious about even what views you believe are offensive. Separate the views from the person who holds them to better understand what needs they serve. Remember, views you hold sacred are seen just as preposterously by them, and you as an idiot for holding them. Get past your instinct to refute and reject and be willing to learn. What opposing views do you find most infuriating? Who are your organizational nemeses who proffer ideas or propose projects that you vehemently disagree with? What motives have you attributed to their views that may be inaccurate? What steps could you take to build a bridge to them to better understand where they are coming from? Start with inviting them to coffee or lunch and see where things go from there.
Reevaluate your echo chamber.
Who do you spend regular time with at work or outside work, with whom you have heated disagreements and then have coffee or a beer? Do people you lead regularly come to you with dissenting ideas or challenge your thinking? If you don’t have people around you who comfortably and routinely exchange differing views without fear of retribution or estrangement, you’re in trouble. It means there is critical information you aren’t getting about decisions you are making, relationships you are participating in, and priorities you are pursuing. Whether at work or on social media, pay attention to how you are participating, whose viewpoints you aren’t seeing, and actively seek out contradicting information to broaden your worldview.
Socialize with your “they.”
When we disagree with people, we objectify them. We concoct “versions” of them that conform with, and justify, our disdain for them. On a piece of paper, jot down the names of those with whom you regularly work or interact and with whom you have fundamental disagreements. How have those disagreements impaired trust? Or your ability to collaborate or lead? These are the people (and we all have them) to whom you nod politely in meetings, but deep inside you’re convinced are wrong and you’re right. What if you actually spent time vetting your assumptions and engaging the ways in which you are different? Might you share more common ground than you imagine? Here again, start with a simple invitation to coffee or lunch and let yourself be surprised by what you learn, and what it feels like to have “them” see you in a new light.
Acknowledge your hypocrisy.
Holding steadfast to convictions is a laudable thing to do. But doing so at the expense of other principles isn’t. You can’t staunchly advocate for more investments in employee development but then never spend any time coaching your own direct reports. You can’t march up and down public streets advocating for those you believe to be marginalized in some way, but then marginalize anyone who disagrees with you. You can’t announce that you are passionate about empowering those you lead, but then only delegate the decisions and work you find unpleasant. And you can’t invite others’ feedback on your leadership, then do nothing with it when you get it. The moment you declare something you believe, you will get scrutinized for how well you live up to your own standards. You need to view your actions through the eyes of those who might not see things as you do to be sure your actions and words match.
Face your fear of differences.
Our aversion to others who are different stems from deep-seated fears. The more exposure we have to those with differences, the more that fear diminishes. We associate difference with conflict, disagreement, winning vs. losing, and the loss of social status or reputation. Though often irrational, our fears lead to self-protection and resistance to expand how we think. Dig deep to understand what you most fear when considering the acceptance of views that differ from yours. Does your resistance lie with the idea itself? The person who holds the idea or their motives? The intensity with which they are trying to persuade you? If you can isolate what your fear is, you can test the rationality of that fear against the value to be gained by building common ground with a colleague.
Our nation is bitterly divided. We don’t have to throw up our hands and assume it needs to stay this way, or more dangerously, assume that it can’t get worse. It can, and it will, unless each of us makes the choice to stem the tide.
You can start the turn today. Choose empathy over scorn toward those whose views you don’t share. You just might invite the same in return.