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Let's talk: the art of understanding and repairing our differences

By Robin Stern. Reprinted from The Hill.

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In the wake of the presidential election, feelings are running high in America, with half of the electorate rejoicing and the other half panicking. The divide we felt in the nation in the run-up to the election now seems more intense than ever. How can we understand our differences? How can we begin to repair them? 

In the world of emotional intelligence, we close the gaps in our understanding of people “on the other side” by first being aware of our own feelings and stories, and then getting curious about the feelings and stories on the other side of the conversation. This is not easy.

A conversation that includes opposing viewpoints can feel like looking at the classic vase-or-face picture. We alternate between seeing one or the other. But to see the entire picture — or hold an integrated conversation — requires that all parts be viewed simultaneously. 

This can be hard. When we teach emotional intelligence, we first teach people how to recognize and regulate their own feelings. Sometimes that involves taking a pause between feeling triggered and responding.

In the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes how she “turned off her own alarm system” in order to listen for a deep understanding of what her subjects — Tea Party members in the deep South “on the other side of the empathy wall” — were telling her.

If we don’t temporarily check our feelings, they leak out and color our ability to see the other person’s picture. And since feelings travel faster in the brain than thoughts, taking that “meta-moment” allows the thinking and reasoning part of our brain, the frontal cortex, to weigh in

When we are unable to step into another’s frame and instead shelter among like-minded company, our views become more polarized and it becomes easy to feel contempt for the other.

Many leaders are mapping ways to bring together people who hold deeply different beliefs. Hochschild and her interviewees found areas of agreement such as getting big money out of politics, reducing prison populations, and protecting the environment.

Sharing and listening are also at the heart of the Living Room Conversation Project, an open-source format for conducting authentic conversations with people who hold different views. Guided by ground rules, participants explore each other’s perspectives and often conclude on common ground.

The first high-profile conversation was co-hosted by Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org, and Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. They started out discussing crony capitalism and ended up agreeing on the need for criminal justice reform, something they continued to work on.

Old scientific views held that humans are naturally competitive, and campaign rhetoric plays on that, encouraging groups to turn on one another. But modern scholars of human behavior say compassion is our natural state while violence, greed, and competition may be learned. The Center for Nonviolent Communication takes this position and has taught skills of deep listening, respect, and nonviolent dialogue for decades.

Schools, too, are increasingly teaching emotional and interpersonal skills. The World Economic Forumcognitive scientists, the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning, and even leading economists all point to the urgency of developing emotional and social skills in our youth.

The Department of Education considers social and emotional learning an important part of the next generation of high schoolsForbes magazinelisted the ability to manage emotions as number two on their list of qualities possessed by “super-achievers.” At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence we teach these skills as well.

To be sure, we cannot overstate how hard it is to hear a very different view. Understanding another’s perspective doesn’t mean we have to feel the others feelings, we merely take them into account. Also deep listening doesn’t mean giving up what we hold important — in fact, constantly prioritizing another’s feelings over your own is its own kind of empathy trap.

And in the case where one party is marginalized and feels threatened, it can be more effective to have allies hold the conversation. Finally, sometimes resistance is the right course of action following a truly emotionally intelligent reflection.

Diversity is a strength that increases the chances of adapting to changing environments. But navigating diversity calls for real skill especially amid today’s accelerating pace of change. We must find the patience to enlarge the frame, ensuring that we see vase and faces alike. Then we can have the conversations that bring people together.

Robin Stern, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Diana Divecha, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and Research Affiliate of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.