Moving from conflict to understanding and cooperation

How are we to talk with those in the other political party when it seems that talking often leads to defensiveness and counterclaims on both sides and further frustration and division? How can we promote working together and feeling more aligned and safer for the betterment of ourselves, our parties, and our country? I think the past year’s combined political election, covid pandemic, racial violence and protests, and exposed social justice issues have intensified the fears and struggles   between both political parties and their members. 

I want to offer some thoughts about why it’s often so difficult to be understood and to change other’s thinking; why we often see things differently; and what might help us better understand and connect with each other so we can work cooperatively on our similar interests and needs, rather than just fight over perceived differences. These thoughts reflect my personal readings and experiences impacted by my 45 years of training and work as a Counselor, Director of a counseling center, and Licensed Psychologist in public agencies and private practice.

I believe the basic two ways to promote growth, change, and cooperation in others and ourselves, are expanding awareness and understanding, and enhancing connection and relationships; or, in short, opening our minds and hearts.  The following four communication hinderances and suggested responses to them are presented in four sections.

Common communication hinderances include:

  1. Focusing first on changing others’ thinking and behavior
  2. Common cognitive biases
  3. Focusing on others’ external statements and behaviors
  4. Labeling others which restricts and distorts our perceptions and relationships

We can greatly facilitate communication, understanding, and working-together relationships when we:

  1. Work first on changing ourselves and our responses to others
  2. Recognize common biases and respond to diminish these biases
  3. Recognize and respond more to other’s internal or underlying thoughts and feelings
  4. Recognize different types of needs, fears, and perspectives to enhance empathy and understanding
  1. We Typically Focus First on Confronting or Changing Others’ Thinking and Behaviors; Shift to Working First on Ourself

Most of us want others to agree with our thinking and decisions, and support our concerns and values. We often find that while we may influence other’s responses to us, we can’t make others respond to us how we’d like them to.  We have more influence or control over changing our own thoughts and feelings, than changing others to give us what we want from them. “If you want to change the way others respond to you, change the way you respond to them”; and “Be the change you want to see in others” (Gandhi).   For example, if I want others to listen to me, I need to listen to them; If I want others to not judge me, I need to not judge them.  The resultant “win-win”, is that I’ll more likely get what I want when I express to others what I want from them, and that no matter how they respond to me, I’m in a better place internally.  “My caring or compassion for others may or may not change them, but it will always change me.” (Richard Rohr, modified)

Most of us want to talk to others with good intentions but we’re often not aware of some of our biases, judgmental thinking, and negative relationship dynamics. If we come across to others as arrogant, condescending, or self-righteous, they will likely shut down or fight back and not be willing or able to really hear what we are saying. No one likes us telling them what they should think or do, and thereby implying that we are smarter, more correct, or right.  Therefore, to be well received, respected, and trusted, we need to first do our internal work to become calm, curious, compassionate, and clear-headed, with an open mind and open heart. Others will then hopefully feel understood, cared for, supported, safe, respected, connected, and included.  We can then both feel ready and willing to discuss difficult topics and concerns without the other fearing we will attack or personally judge them.   “Understanding is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” (Carl Jung)

Discussions with those of the other political side may still include disagreements, conflicts, and reactive emotions. But if you are in a good mental and emotional place, you can consciously choose not to be triggered by the other’s comments nor become judgmental, and thereby you can avoid the urge to “fight, flee, or freeze” out of fear.  You will instead be able to stay “present” to attend to and listen to the other, and continue to try to understand and stay connected. “Strive first to understand before you are understood.” (Stephen Covey) Others will then be ready to understand you after they have been understood by you.  If you both strive to be understood at the same time, neither of you will be fully present and attentive to the other as you will both be thinking about how to best respond to the other.

We want to challenge our biases, labels, and fears of perceived differences in others for accuracy in order to stop unnecessary separation and competition. By acknowledging similarities and appreciating differences we enhance relationships, cooperation, and a shared identity.  “When others are struggling, or we’re in conflict with others, build a longer table, not a taller fence.” (anonymous, modified)

  1.  Common Biases Distort Everyone’s Thinking; Recognize Biases and Practice Responses to Counter These Biases in Ourselves and Others           

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” (Anais Nin). Our own past experiences and present thoughts and feelings affect what and how we see ourselves, others and the world. What we may think is objective thinking is influenced by our subjective thoughts, feelings and experiences. We can’t see what we can’t see, and these resultant biases trap us in ignorance, deception, and illusion.  Everyone’s biases distort the accuracy of their thinking and statements. Stronger emotional reactions are then triggered which then feeds our biases which keeps that cycle going. We are not going to get full understanding with more or better ideas and debate until we first attempt to understand and relate to how we all see differently. 

Each example of a bias listed below will be followed by a suggested response to that bias.  Each “response” can be a response to other’s comments, or can initiate a conversation with others. This list was influenced by Brian McLaren’s work on biases.

Confirmation Bias: We look for stories and ideas that make sense because they connect us to our past and confirm our assumptions and our preferred way of looking at the world. We tend to exclude whatever doesn’t fit in our belief system or paradigm.     

Suggested Response: We may want to explore and acknowledge what beliefs and values we share in common with others before addressing differences. Both of us are likely to be more positive and receptive to each other’s views if we have already confirmed ideas shared.

Contact Bias: When we have close and sustained personal contact with others, our prejudices and false assumptions are challenged. We then recognize more similarities and feel more connected.

Suggested Response: We may want to spend time getting to know the other person and maybe do things together of mutual interest before addressing differences.

Community Bias: It’s very difficult for us to see what our “community” (e.g. political, geographical, social, professional, racial, economical, etc.) doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.

Suggested Response: We may want to help expand our, and the other’s, sense of community by noting beliefs and values shared with each other and other groups of people before addressing differences.

Reciprocity Bias: How you treat or respond to me is how I’ll likely treat or respond to you- if you are critical of my ideas, I’ll be critical of your ideas; if you are defensive, I’ll be defensive; if you show com-passion, I’ll respond with compassion; if you are curious and respectful toward me, I’ll respond in kind.

Suggested Response: We may want to start with listening, understanding, respect, empathy, and non-judgment if we want to be treated that way.

Comfort Bias: We often don’t continue to explore and clearly see things that disturb or stress us.

Suggested Response: We may want to facilitate comfort, calmness, empathy, understanding, and connection with others to promote interest and exploration of our differences.

Simplicity Bias: Our brains prefer a simple explanation or concept to a complex one, and that sometimes means preferring a simple falsehood to a complex truth. Stereotypes are easier to apply and assess than variable and changing traits.           

Suggested Response: We may want to start by presenting concise thoughts and concepts, rather than detailed positions, to facilitate listening and understanding.

Hierarchical Bias: When we feel “one-up”, we typically think we are better, smarter, more right, more intelligent, more moral, or more spiritual than the other, and we will tend to dismiss, degrade, discount, tolerate, or ignore the other.  When either of us experiences one-upmanship or arrogance in the other, we will likely fight back or shut down. 

Suggested Response: We may want to start with humility, respect, and compassion to promote the other’s safety and receptiveness to what we are saying.

III.  We Respond Primarily to Others’ External Statements and Behaviors; Learn to Recognize and Respond to Others’ Internal or Underlying Thoughts and Feelings

Most of our “external” behavior (publicly expressed thoughts, emotions, and behavior) is driven by our “internal” beliefs and feelings (about ourselves and others), even when we think it is about the other’s behavior.  If we want to influence another’s behavior, we will be more successful if we first try to understand and relate to their internal beliefs and feelings, rather than first respond to their external statements and behaviors.  With curiosity you can ask questions to help them more fully express their underlying thoughts. “Don’t judge other’s statements and behaviors if you don’t understand their reasons, fears, and needs” (anonymous, modified).  For example, rather than quickly judge others’ accusations and destructive behavior, understand their underlying feelings and thoughts such as hurting from not feeling respected or valued; or the fear of being ignored or dismissed. This doesn’t excuse the aggressive behaviors but when their fear and pain have finally been seen and heard, their anger and violence will naturally subside, and peaceful discussions will follow.  Responding to their anger or aggression only with criticism or control will likely perpetuate or escalate these thoughts and behaviors on both sides.

I’m also suggesting that we have a better chance of working together cooperatively if we respond first to other’s hearts and emotions rather than their minds and stated beliefs.  It’s “better to first connect, than be correct”, or “heart before head”, if you both want to feel heard and valued.  We can help others, and ourselves, calm down, feel safe, and feel seen and heard, when we express “empathy” by acknowledging or sensing other’s emotions. Empathy does not mean agreement or approval, but the ability to emotionally understand, or relate to, the other. Therefore, it is usually very helpful to first respond to others’ underlying feelings before going to our “heads” for cognitive understanding and problem solving. “Strive for right relationship before doing what you think is right for others.”  From a caring and respectful relationship, you will more likely do the right thing for both of you. When you decide alone, or in conflict, what you think is the right thing for the other may not be what they most need or what they think is the right thing for them.

We can learn to see other’s negative statements and behaviors as a reflection of their inner emotions.   Therefore, rather than react only to another’s expressed criticism, respond first with emotional empathy. You can say something like “I can see how that might hurt when you see me (or the situation) that way”; or “I would be scared if I saw others (or the situation) like you stated.  Then, with curiosity you can ask questions to help them more fully express their fear (or pain) so you can more fully connect with and understand them.

A common way we distort or limit our thinking, understanding, and relationships, is to become attached to labels about others and ourselves. The labels we apply to others then carry the meanings we attach to these labels, and they highly influence our response to others.  Some examples are:

  1. If we think others are “stupid”, “ignorant”, “misguided”, or misinformed”,

we may find ourself discrediting their thinking, and wanting to teach or educate them.

  • If we think others are “crazy”, “dangerous”, or “violent”,

we may find ourself condemning and avoiding them, and wanting them to be controlled by authorities.

  • If we think others are “bad” or “unethical”,

we may find ourself feeling self-righteous and distancing from them, and wanting to declare our higher values to justify our thoughts and behaviors

  • If we think others are “lazy”, or “manipulative”,

we may find ourself blaming their character for their problems, and wanting ourselves, or someone of our choosing, to take charge of the situation.

  • If we think others are “judging” us,

we may find ourselves judging them for judging us, and wanting to defend ourselves and correct their views.

On the other hand, if we look deeper, we can shift from labeling others to addressing their internal self-thoughts and feelings that drive their statements and behaviors; and thereby respond with greater compassion and understanding:

  • If we become aware of others feeling “hurt” or “emotionally wounded”,

we may then find ourself feeling compassion and empathy

  • If we become aware of others feeling “ignored”, “forgotten” or “unheard and unseen”,

we may then find ourself wanting to listen more closely and be more attentive to what they’re saying and what’s not said that underlies their statements and behavior

  • If we become aware of others feeling “separated”, “disconnected” or “alone or lonely”,

we may then find ourself wanting to help them feel more connected and included

  • If we become aware of others feeling “afraid” of us,

we may then find ourself wanting to respond with compassion and promote greater safety and security for everyone.

  1. If we become aware of others feeling harshly “judged”, “discounted”, or “dismissed”, 

we may then find ourselves wanting to listen without judging or discounting what they say.

  1. Labeling People and Groups is Very Problematic; Recognizing Different Types of Individual Needs, Fears, and Perspectives Can Help Us Respond with Greater Empathy and Understanding    

We tend to put labels on Republicans and Conservatives, and Democrats and Liberals, and these stereotypes are never totally accurate for any one person, much less a group.  Labels tend to exaggerate “differences” and are often misleading and harmful. None of us are “all-Republican” or ‘all-Democrat” or “always Conservative” or “always Liberal” on all issues.  The “negative” labels reflect parts of everyone that come out when they feel highly stressed or self-protective. When we focus on labels that divide us, we miss what we share in common, such as our feelings (e.g. fear, pain, and frustration) and suffering, and our needs (e.g. support, nurturance, safety, respect, and belonging). We don’t want to become attached to labels as they can cover up as much as they reveal.

We are not accurately or adequately defined by our best or worst thoughts, decisions, and behaviors.  We are a mix of different parts expressed through our thoughts, images, and feelings. We are also very complex, having thoughts, desires, and feelings that are inconsistent, conflicting, and contradicting.  For example, we can both criticize and accept, be cautious and impulsive, want to connect and be alone, take risks and play-it-safe, hate and love, and be calm and upset.

Labels will continue because they are a quick way to make an assessment to help us feel either more comfortable and safer, or more fearful and self-protective, with others. Three responses or adjustments to our labels of others can be helpful in promoting better understanding and relationships:

1. Label or judge thoughts and behaviors rather than the person. Negative thoughts and behaviors don’t mean the person’s core is negative, but that internal struggles, unmet needs, or fears are being expressed in negative thoughts and behaviors.

2. Look for what’s at stake for the other person, or what matters to them from their perspective about themselves. What are they afraid of losing or not getting (e.g. financial security, personal safety, respect or recognition, support or validation, or power or status)?

3. Recognize what need, or mindset might be driving your own or others’ thinking or behavior.  Examples of needs include safety, love, support, respect, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem, power, attention, and control.  Examples of perspective orientations or mindsets include cognitive, emotional, psychological, scientific, social, cultural, religious, and spiritual.

We can all relate to different needs impacting our thoughts and behaviors differently. For example, we will see others and respond to them differently when we have strong “safety and security” needs, compared to when we have strong “caring relationship and belonging” needs.  We have also had the experience of different psychological/social perspectives impacting our thoughts and behaviors differently. For example, we see and respond to others differently when we think and relate in terms of “I or You” or “My Group or Your Group” which tends to support a sense of boundaries, differences, and judgement; compared to when we think and relate to others as “I and You” or “All of Us” which tends to support a sense of connections, similarities, and acceptance.

The above examples of needs and perspectives are reflected in my understanding of human evolution where we all have a desire and drive for both individual protection that promotes separation and competition (“survival of the fittest”) where I am most important, and group protection that promotes belonging and cooperation (“group survival”), where the group is more important than the individual, which then protects every member.

It can be very helpful to first listen and note whether there are any different needs, fears, or mindsets in each other’s thinking. If so, we can respond at a deeper level to those needs, fears, or mindsets rather than just respond with “logical” challenges or disagreements on what they are saying or doing.  When you can see and understand the basis of other’s thinking and behaviors, you can more easily empathize with their experiences even when you disagree with their conclusions. They will then likely be more receptive to your different needs, fears, and perspective orientations   

Summary and Call to Action

In summary, our frustration in talking to, and trying to understand and be understood by, those in the other political party is to be expected.  The discouraging news is that there are many common ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that hinder our communication and relationships.  The encouraging news is that there are many ways to counter these hinderances, and thus enhance our communication and relationships.  I hope you find that recognizing the four identified thinking and communication hinderances and suggested responses helpful when you encounter conflict or tension in talking with others.

In conclusion, to help us better understand and feel closer to those of the other political party, our “call to action” is to select a few key words or short phrases and commit to practicing them with family, friends, co-workers, and members of both political parties.

Some examples, to remind yourself to practice, include:

Expand my awareness (of the other’s issues and needs), and enhance this relationship (with the other)

Be calm (body), curious (mind), and compassionate (heart) toward others

Be fully present to others- attentive, receptive, and non-judgmental

Express heart before head, as it is better to first connect than be correct.

Focus on connection, similarities, and cooperation: rather than separation, differences, and competition

Expand my circle of identity with others rather than solidify my sense of separation from others

Strive to understand before being understood so others will then be receptive to understanding me

Address “underlying concerns” (internal self-directed thoughts, fears, and needs), in addition to behavioral “symptoms” (external statements and behaviors)

Meet others where they’re at, not where you want them to be

Respond differently to others If I want them to respond differently to me

If I can’t feel emotional empathy for others, start with understanding

Don’t care more about others only if and when they change, care more about others so they can change

I want to offer some thoughts about why it’s often so difficult to be understood and to change other’s thinking; why we often see things differently; and what might help us better understand and connect with each other so we can work cooperatively on our similar interests and needs, rather than just fight over perceived differences. These thoughts reflect my personal readings and experiences impacted by my 45 years of training and work as a Counselor, Director of a counseling center, and Licensed Psychologist in public agencies and private practice.

I believe the basic two ways to promote growth, change, and cooperation in others and ourselves, are expanding awareness and understanding, and enhancing connection and relationships; or, in short, opening our minds and hearts.  The following four communication hinderances and suggested responses to them are presented in four sections.

Common communication hinderances include:

  1. Focusing first on changing others’ thinking and behavior
  2. Common cognitive biases
  3. Focusing on others’ external statements and behaviors
  4. Labeling others which restricts and distorts our perceptions and relationships

We can greatly facilitate communication, understanding, and working-together relationships when we:

  1. Work first on changing ourselves and our responses to others
  2. Recognize common biases and respond to diminish these biases
  3. Recognize and respond more to other’s internal or underlying thoughts and feelings
  4. Recognize different types of needs, fears, and perspectives to enhance empathy and understanding
  1. We Typically Focus First on Confronting or Changing Others’ Thinking and Behaviors; Shift to Working First on Ourself

Most of us want others to agree with our thinking and decisions, and support our concerns and values. We often find that while we may influence other’s responses to us, we can’t make others respond to us how we’d like them to.  We have more influence or control over changing our own thoughts and feelings, than changing others to give us what we want from them. “If you want to change the way others respond to you, change the way you respond to them”; and “Be the change you want to see in others” (Gandhi).   For example, if I want others to listen to me, I need to listen to them; If I want others to not judge me, I need to not judge them.  The resultant “win-win”, is that I’ll more likely get what I want when I express to others what I want from them, and that no matter how they respond to me, I’m in a better place internally.  “My caring or compassion for others may or may not change them, but it will always change me.” (Richard Rohr, modified)

Most of us want to talk to others with good intentions but we’re often not aware of some of our biases, judgmental thinking, and negative relationship dynamics. If we come across to others as arrogant, condescending, or self-righteous, they will likely shut down or fight back and not be willing or able to really hear what we are saying. No one likes us telling them what they should think or do, and thereby implying that we are smarter, more correct, or right.  Therefore, to be well received, respected, and trusted, we need to first do our internal work to become calm, curious, compassionate, and clear-headed, with an open mind and open heart. Others will then hopefully feel understood, cared for, supported, safe, respected, connected, and included.  We can then both feel ready and willing to discuss difficult topics and concerns without the other fearing we will attack or personally judge them.   “Understanding is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” (Carl Jung)

Discussions with those of the other political side may still include disagreements, conflicts, and reactive emotions. But if you are in a good mental and emotional place, you can consciously choose not to be triggered by the other’s comments nor become judgmental, and thereby you can avoid the urge to “fight, flee, or freeze” out of fear.  You will instead be able to stay “present” to attend to and listen to the other, and continue to try to understand and stay connected. “Strive first to understand before you are understood.” (Stephen Covey) Others will then be ready to understand you after they have been understood by you.  If you both strive to be understood at the same time, neither of you will be fully present and attentive to the other as you will both be thinking about how to best respond to the other.

We want to challenge our biases, labels, and fears of perceived differences in others for accuracy in order to stop unnecessary separation and competition. By acknowledging similarities and appreciating differences we enhance relationships, cooperation, and a shared identity.  “When others are struggling, or we’re in conflict with others, build a longer table, not a taller fence.” (anonymous, modified)

  1.  Common Biases Distort Everyone’s Thinking; Recognize Biases and Practice Responses to Counter These Biases in Ourselves and Others           

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” (Anais Nin). Our own past experiences and present thoughts and feelings affect what and how we see ourselves, others and the world. What we may think is objective thinking is influenced by our subjective thoughts, feelings and experiences. We can’t see what we can’t see, and these resultant biases trap us in ignorance, deception, and illusion.  Everyone’s biases distort the accuracy of their thinking and statements. Stronger emotional reactions are then triggered which then feeds our biases which keeps that cycle going. We are not going to get full understanding with more or better ideas and debate until we first attempt to understand and relate to how we all see differently. 

Each example of a bias listed below will be followed by a suggested response to that bias.  Each “response” can be a response to other’s comments, or can initiate a conversation with others. This list was influenced by Brian McLaren’s work on biases.

Confirmation Bias: We look for stories and ideas that make sense because they connect us to our past and confirm our assumptions and our preferred way of looking at the world. We tend to exclude whatever doesn’t fit in our belief system or paradigm.     

Suggested Response: We may want to explore and acknowledge what beliefs and values we share in common with others before addressing differences. Both of us are likely to be more positive and receptive to each other’s views if we have already confirmed ideas shared.

Contact Bias: When we have close and sustained personal contact with others, our prejudices and false assumptions are challenged. We then recognize more similarities and feel more connected.

Suggested Response: We may want to spend time getting to know the other person and maybe do things together of mutual interest before addressing differences.

Community Bias: It’s very difficult for us to see what our “community” (e.g. political, geographical, social, professional, racial, economical, etc.) doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.

Suggested Response: We may want to help expand our, and the other’s, sense of community by noting beliefs and values shared with each other and other groups of people before addressing differences.

Reciprocity Bias: How you treat or respond to me is how I’ll likely treat or respond to you- if you are critical of my ideas, I’ll be critical of your ideas; if you are defensive, I’ll be defensive; if you show com-passion, I’ll respond with compassion; if you are curious and respectful toward me, I’ll respond in kind.

Suggested Response: We may want to start with listening, understanding, respect, empathy, and non-judgment if we want to be treated that way.

Comfort Bias: We often don’t continue to explore and clearly see things that disturb or stress us.

Suggested Response: We may want to facilitate comfort, calmness, empathy, understanding, and connection with others to promote interest and exploration of our differences.

Simplicity Bias: Our brains prefer a simple explanation or concept to a complex one, and that sometimes means preferring a simple falsehood to a complex truth. Stereotypes are easier to apply and assess than variable and changing traits.           

Suggested Response: We may want to start by presenting concise thoughts and concepts, rather than detailed positions, to facilitate listening and understanding.

Hierarchical Bias: When we feel “one-up”, we typically think we are better, smarter, more right, more intelligent, more moral, or more spiritual than the other, and we will tend to dismiss, degrade, discount, tolerate, or ignore the other.  When either of us experiences one-upmanship or arrogance in the other, we will likely fight back or shut down. 

Suggested Response: We may want to start with humility, respect, and compassion to promote the other’s safety and receptiveness to what we are saying.

III.  We Respond Primarily to Others’ External Statements and Behaviors; Learn to Recognize and Respond to Others’ Internal or Underlying Thoughts and Feelings

Most of our “external” behavior (publicly expressed thoughts, emotions, and behavior) is driven by our “internal” beliefs and feelings (about ourselves and others), even when we think it is about the other’s behavior.  If we want to influence another’s behavior, we will be more successful if we first try to understand and relate to their internal beliefs and feelings, rather than first respond to their external statements and behaviors.  With curiosity you can ask questions to help them more fully express their underlying thoughts. “Don’t judge other’s statements and behaviors if you don’t understand their reasons, fears, and needs” (anonymous, modified).  For example, rather than quickly judge others’ accusations and destructive behavior, understand their underlying feelings and thoughts such as hurting from not feeling respected or valued; or the fear of being ignored or dismissed. This doesn’t excuse the aggressive behaviors but when their fear and pain have finally been seen and heard, their anger and violence will naturally subside, and peaceful discussions will follow.  Responding to their anger or aggression only with criticism or control will likely perpetuate or escalate these thoughts and behaviors on both sides.

I’m also suggesting that we have a better chance of working together cooperatively if we respond first to other’s hearts and emotions rather than their minds and stated beliefs.  It’s “better to first connect, than be correct”, or “heart before head”, if you both want to feel heard and valued.  We can help others, and ourselves, calm down, feel safe, and feel seen and heard, when we express “empathy” by acknowledging or sensing other’s emotions. Empathy does not mean agreement or approval, but the ability to emotionally understand, or relate to, the other. Therefore, it is usually very helpful to first respond to others’ underlying feelings before going to our “heads” for cognitive understanding and problem solving. “Strive for right relationship before doing what you think is right for others.”  From a caring and respectful relationship, you will more likely do the right thing for both of you. When you decide alone, or in conflict, what you think is the right thing for the other may not be what they most need or what they think is the right thing for them.

We can learn to see other’s negative statements and behaviors as a reflection of their inner emotions.   Therefore, rather than react only to another’s expressed criticism, respond first with emotional empathy. You can say something like “I can see how that might hurt when you see me (or the situation) that way”; or “I would be scared if I saw others (or the situation) like you stated.  Then, with curiosity you can ask questions to help them more fully express their fear (or pain) so you can more fully connect with and understand them.

A common way we distort or limit our thinking, understanding, and relationships, is to become attached to labels about others and ourselves. The labels we apply to others then carry the meanings we attach to these labels, and they highly influence our response to others.  Some examples are:

  1. If we think others are “stupid”, “ignorant”, “misguided”, or misinformed”,

we may find ourself discrediting their thinking, and wanting to teach or educate them.

  • If we think others are “crazy”, “dangerous”, or “violent”,

we may find ourself condemning and avoiding them, and wanting them to be controlled by authorities.

  • If we think others are “bad” or “unethical”,

we may find ourself feeling self-righteous and distancing from them, and wanting to declare our higher values to justify our thoughts and behaviors

  • If we think others are “lazy”, or “manipulative”,

we may find ourself blaming their character for their problems, and wanting ourselves, or someone of our choosing, to take charge of the situation.

  • If we think others are “judging” us,

we may find ourselves judging them for judging us, and wanting to defend ourselves and correct their views.

On the other hand, if we look deeper, we can shift from labeling others to addressing their internal self-thoughts and feelings that drive their statements and behaviors; and thereby respond with greater compassion and understanding:

  • If we become aware of others feeling “hurt” or “emotionally wounded”,

we may then find ourself feeling compassion and empathy

  • If we become aware of others feeling “ignored”, “forgotten” or “unheard and unseen”,

we may then find ourself wanting to listen more closely and be more attentive to what they’re saying and what’s not said that underlies their statements and behavior

  • If we become aware of others feeling “separated”, “disconnected” or “alone or lonely”,

we may then find ourself wanting to help them feel more connected and included

  • If we become aware of others feeling “afraid” of us,

we may then find ourself wanting to respond with compassion and promote greater safety and security for everyone.

  1. If we become aware of others feeling harshly “judged”, “discounted”, or “dismissed”, 

we may then find ourselves wanting to listen without judging or discounting what they say.

  1. Labeling People and Groups is Very Problematic; Recognizing Different Types of Individual Needs, Fears, and Perspectives Can Help Us Respond with Greater Empathy and Understanding    

We tend to put labels on Republicans and Conservatives, and Democrats and Liberals, and these stereotypes are never totally accurate for any one person, much less a group.  Labels tend to exaggerate “differences” and are often misleading and harmful. None of us are “all-Republican” or ‘all-Democrat” or “always Conservative” or “always Liberal” on all issues.  The “negative” labels reflect parts of everyone that come out when they feel highly stressed or self-protective. When we focus on labels that divide us, we miss what we share in common, such as our feelings (e.g. fear, pain, and frustration) and suffering, and our needs (e.g. support, nurturance, safety, respect, and belonging). We don’t want to become attached to labels as they can cover up as much as they reveal.

We are not accurately or adequately defined by our best or worst thoughts, decisions, and behaviors.  We are a mix of different parts expressed through our thoughts, images, and feelings. We are also very complex, having thoughts, desires, and feelings that are inconsistent, conflicting, and contradicting.  For example, we can both criticize and accept, be cautious and impulsive, want to connect and be alone, take risks and play-it-safe, hate and love, and be calm and upset.

Labels will continue because they are a quick way to make an assessment to help us feel either more comfortable and safer, or more fearful and self-protective, with others. Three responses or adjustments to our labels of others can be helpful in promoting better understanding and relationships:

1. Label or judge thoughts and behaviors rather than the person. Negative thoughts and behaviors don’t mean the person’s core is negative, but that internal struggles, unmet needs, or fears are being expressed in negative thoughts and behaviors.

2. Look for what’s at stake for the other person, or what matters to them from their perspective about themselves. What are they afraid of losing or not getting (e.g. financial security, personal safety, respect or recognition, support or validation, or power or status)?

3. Recognize what need, or mindset might be driving your own or others’ thinking or behavior.  Examples of needs include safety, love, support, respect, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem, power, attention, and control.  Examples of perspective orientations or mindsets include cognitive, emotional, psychological, scientific, social, cultural, religious, and spiritual.

We can all relate to different needs impacting our thoughts and behaviors differently. For example, we will see others and respond to them differently when we have strong “safety and security” needs, compared to when we have strong “caring relationship and belonging” needs.  We have also had the experience of different psychological/social perspectives impacting our thoughts and behaviors differently. For example, we see and respond to others differently when we think and relate in terms of “I or You” or “My Group or Your Group” which tends to support a sense of boundaries, differences, and judgement; compared to when we think and relate to others as “I and You” or “All of Us” which tends to support a sense of connections, similarities, and acceptance.

The above examples of needs and perspectives are reflected in my understanding of human evolution where we all have a desire and drive for both individual protection that promotes separation and competition (“survival of the fittest”) where I am most important, and group protection that promotes belonging and cooperation (“group survival”), where the group is more important than the individual, which then protects every member.

It can be very helpful to first listen and note whether there are any different needs, fears, or mindsets in each other’s thinking. If so, we can respond at a deeper level to those needs, fears, or mindsets rather than just respond with “logical” challenges or disagreements on what they are saying or doing.  When you can see and understand the basis of other’s thinking and behaviors, you can more easily empathize with their experiences even when you disagree with their conclusions. They will then likely be more receptive to your different needs, fears, and perspective orientations   

Summary and Call to Action

In summary, our frustration in talking to, and trying to understand and be understood by, those in the other political party is to be expected.  The discouraging news is that there are many common ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that hinder our communication and relationships.  The encouraging news is that there are many ways to counter these hinderances, and thus enhance our communication and relationships.  I hope you find that recognizing the four identified thinking and communication hinderances and suggested responses helpful when you encounter conflict or tension in talking with others.

In conclusion, to help us better understand and feel closer to those of the other political party, our “call to action” is to select a few key words or short phrases and commit to practicing them with family, friends, co-workers, and members of both political parties.

Some examples, to remind yourself to practice, include:

Expand my awareness (of the other’s issues and needs), and enhance this relationship (with the other)

Be calm (body), curious (mind), and compassionate (heart) toward others

Be fully present to others- attentive, receptive, and non-judgmental

Express heart before head, as it is better to first connect than be correct.

Focus on connection, similarities, and cooperation: rather than separation, differences, and competition

Expand my circle of identity with others rather than solidify my sense of separation from others

Strive to understand before being understood so others will then be receptive to understanding me

Address “underlying concerns” (internal self-directed thoughts, fears, and needs), in addition to behavioral “symptoms” (external statements and behaviors)

Meet others where they’re at, not where you want them to be

Respond differently to others If I want them to respond differently to me

If I can’t feel emotional empathy for others, start with understanding

Don’t care more about others only if and when they change, care more about others so they can change

John Ritchie Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Director of a counseling center for 28 years, and Counselor in public agencies and private practice for 45 years, and living in Sylva, NC.

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