Having just watched the first Presidential debate, I am reminded of how important debate and discussion is in our world…and how lost we are, as a society, in doing this well. I have not seen any comment – by friends or the media – that claims the presidential debate was helpful or informative. The American people would have been better served by Trump and Biden telling us what they value, what they believe, and what they will do. Instead we were given argument, interruption, and saddest of all, lies and name-calling.
I know this is not new, but it is becoming more pronounced. The spill-over is increasing our nation’s polarization. One of the key obstacles we face which is adding to this – is caused by our social isolation. Our need to distance ourselves physically has translated into distancing ourselves from information that we don’t like and don’t want to hear.
In the past, we would overhear or be engaged to discuss in ideas with others. We would be exposed to conversations among colleagues at work, friends in social settings, or the people waiting in line beside us. We would hear ideas we didn’t agree with, learn perspectives we hadn’t considered, gain knowledge we did not possess. Today, we don’t have those same opportunities. Today our information is limited to what we seek – and all too often that is based on our own previously identified beliefs and interests. As such, we are more likely to be getting information that re-affirms but does not challenge our thoughts and ideas. Watch this trailer from the Netflix original: The Social Dilemma to understand how the information you receive (be it truth or conspiracy theories) is tailored to your current beliefs.
Our insular thinking is a product of the internet and compounded by the Covid pandemic. We are failing to hear alternate perspectives. We are experiencing added tension and increasing levels of animosity. And what are we are left with? Fear, frustration, and anger.
What we need is a new dynamic.
Changing our current and painful trajectory toward polarization, will require effort. Just as we want to hear the ideas and opinions of our leaders during the presidential debate, we must work with intention to hear the ideas and opinions of those around us. We cannot rely solely on the news when media outlets choose what to report and stories are often laden with bias. We cannot rely on an internet search when a computer algorithm determines the information we will see – and does not care if we receive fact or fiction. To build our understanding, we must work harder, and we must rely on one another. We need to expand our awareness while also expanding that of those around us. It’s a two-way street, but some things are universally important in debate and discussion.
Truth. Listening. Sharing opinions. Expressing ideas.
Yes, engaging in debate and discussion – bridging this communication (and knowledge) gap – means exposing ourselves to uncomfortable conversations. But uncomfortable does not mean hostile. It means asking questions, breathing through information we don’t agree with – and not shutting down the discussion prematurely. It means engaging from a place of curiosity. And the payoff is huge. It allows us to build understanding, share knowledge, and create awareness.
The challenge is often this: How do I broach these difficult conversations? How do I engage in a discussion that may create tension with those I love or respect? In a time when we all want so badly to connect, why should we disrupt the status quo?
Let me respond to the “Why”. Consider the most meaningful relationships in your life. Are they meaningful because you walk on eggshells and preserve the peace? Are they enriched and deeper when you withhold your thoughts? Of course not. The point is not that we seek conflict, but rather that we seek to understand each other. This deepens the relationship. It creates trust. We feel safest when we can share and expose our thoughts and beliefs openly. Sure, we prefer others to see things the same way we do, but differences are ok too when we know what underlies them. When we understand what guides the different ideas or preferences.
How do we broach these difficult moments?
Start with intention and goals. Discussion and debate presume a sharing of differing opinions. For many, this creates the concern. The intention therefore must be to exchange ideas, not to persuade a conclusion. The key steps:
Create opportunities for discussion. Start by engaging with someone who has an alternate point of view. Ask them if they are open to sharing and learning together.
Agree to ground rules. I recommend those include a rule to take turns and avoid interrupting and to listen with for the purpose of understanding. Ideally, you both agree to remove the goal of persuading the other to your vision. Instead, agree to work to understand the other person’s thoughts, rationale, and perspective.
Ask questions. When things seem divergent or insurmountable, ask more questions. Look to find out the rationale to a person’s belief, the values they hold dear, the intention behind their actions. Be curious. Ask. Learn.
Wrap up by each summarizing what you heard and understood. Allow the other person an opportunity to clarify areas of misunderstanding.
Close with gratitude. Appreciate the willingness to engage in discussion and to share a piece of yourselves. Remember the goal is building better understanding – ask yourself if you’ve achieved that – even in small measure and be genuine in your acknowledgement.
If the concern about things getting heated still causes resistance, create a safe-word or allow a time-out if things become too intense. However, do not allow the difficult moment to become a lasting one. Agree to end any discussion by reaffirming points of agreement, shared values, and the intentions of the discussion. Always close with gratitude.
Sharing opinions, ideals, preferences, and values help us to learn about one another. We form deeper bonds and stronger relationships. We communicate beyond the surface.