Dialogue across difference: Engaging with polarized perspectives

February 10, 2020

Two people having a serious conversation. Photo Courtesy of The Gender Spectrum Collection /Creative Commons
Two people having a serious conversation. Photo Courtesy of The Gender Spectrum Collection /Creative Commons

In this time of increased polarization, there is interest and concern about how to have productive conversations with colleagues, friends, family, and loved ones about diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice issues.

By utilizing an intercultural developmental approach, we can gain perspectives and skills to reach across divides to be more effective in our interactions. The Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC) provides us with a framework to meet people where they are, engage them in effective dialogue, maintain positive relationships and preserve our personal integrity.

IDI Continuum

The IDC describes the developmental orientation of Polarization as a mindset characterized by an “Us vs Them” perspective. People who primarily experience difference through a polarized lens tend to have a strong commitment to their own worldview, distrust people who they perceive as different from themselves, and discount information that contradicts their worldview. As a result, trying to persuade through sharing data and information tends to be counter-productive. When people are deeply polarized, they tend to have confirmation bias (i.e. selective attention to data that confirms their already existing belief system while discounting all other information). In addition, the attempt to contradict a deeply held polarized belief system can result in a “backfire effect” that contributes to people doubling down on their existing belief systems despite information or facts to the contrary.

So, what are we to do instead?

First, having a productive conversation requires preparing yourself to see if you are ready and able to engage in a dialogue with good intent. Once you are prepared, it is then important to have engagement strategies to be effective in achieving your goals for the interaction. Below are some suggestions…

 Preparation Tips

  • Determine your goal for the engagement. Do you want to reinforce your own worldview? Be right vs effective? Build a relationship? Move someone to consider another perspective? The clearer you are about your purpose, the more effective you will be in choosing the most adaptive strategy to achieve your goal. If you are not clear about your purpose, you might want to postpone the conversation until you are.
  • Know your triggers. It is hard to stay clear, on purpose, and adaptive when we are triggered. What are the physiological signals to watch for to let you know you are triggered? What do you do when you are triggered? Withdraw? Attack? Go numb? Appease? Be prepared to recognize and deal with your reaction. If you are triggered, you might want to postpone the conversation until you are feeling more grounded.
  • Remember authentic relationships tend to be built on curiosity, dialogue and empathy, not on ideology, jargon, or the transmission of data.
  • Reflect on what you know about the other person. Who are they? What matters to them? What are their values? What struggles have they had? Who in their life, particularly those they care about, might be impacted about the concerns or issues you most care about?
  • Be prepared to use your intercultural knowledge and skills. What we often experience in interactions with people whose primary orientation is Polarization/Defense (Us vs Them) is anger. However, most often what is underlying the expression of anger is a perceived fear that something they hold dear (e.g. a belief, a core value, way of life, etc.) is being threatened. The developmental intervention for people with a Polarization mindset is to support them in finding commonalities, even when commonalities with the people they perceive to be “them “are not readily apparent. Being open to empathize with their perceived sense of fear, even if you disagree with its location or target, can be a place to start.
  • Transformation takes time. Shifting someone’s mindset will likely take more than one conversation. Check in with yourself about your energy, level of commitment, etc.

Engagement Tips

  • Listen to understand. Be sure you aren’t just waiting to plan a response.
  • Be curious. Ask about their concerns, fears, hopes, and visions for the future.
  • Empathize as you are authentically able to do so.
  • Share how you are feeling, your concerns, fears, hopes, and visions for the future. Be real.
  • Tell stories that help connect their experience, issues, fears, or concerns to those of someone (or a group) who they might have perceived as a threatening “them.” Try to help them discover commonalities to support a shift from “us vs them” to “we.”
  • Find stopping points so that you can end a conversation in a place of understanding and then revisit the conversation.
  • Follow-up. Once a rapport is established, a follow-up conversation can go deeper through sharing more experiences and stories to support the development of empathy and a more complex worldview

We will likely have a number of opportunities to practice these skills. Remember, in interactions with people who are different from ourselves and/or have different beliefs, our assumptions about their perspectives often get in the way of connection. If you wish to have an authentic dialogue, we have to discover, negotiate, or create commonality. My hope is that these tips will help you do so.

zemskyBeth Zemsky, a Dodge Technical Assistance faculty member, is Principal at Zemsky & Associates Consulting, LLC, and a qualified administer of the Intercultural Developmental Inventory (IDI).