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Do you ever make perfectly clear and sensible statements that people somehow misunderstand or dispute? Do you get angry at the stupid things that seemingly sensible people say in social media and on the news? There are many reasons people don’t understand each other. Research has discovered we all have several types of bias.
For example, there is a well-established quirk in human thinking called the fundamental attribution bias; when I do something foolish, I attribute it to circumstances; when you do something foolish, I attribute it to your lack of knowledge or to weakness in your character. “I got angry because you were being irritating! You get angry because you never learned self-control.”
It is easy to see how this bias in our thinking creates problems in our efforts to understand each other.
On the subject of anger, research has demonstrated that when we get mad, we narrow our view and we shut off our compassion. In other words, we see fewer options and we toss kindness and empathy out the window. These are not great precursors to problem-solving.
There is more. All humans tend to have a confirmation bias. We seek and welcome information that agrees with our current beliefs. We ignore or criticize information that challenges our beliefs.
There are many more types of bias, but naïve realism is especially pertinent. We recognize that everyone else has limited information and personal biases. We can see that no one else views the whole picture. “Except for me. I see things as they are.” We are blind to our own blindness.
To top it all off, we humans are all fundamentally egocentric. We all privilege our own preferences and interests. We tend to be less aware of and concerned about the interests of others.
With such perverse patterns in human thinking, is it any wonder that we polarize? Should we be surprised that, in today’s political climate, the rhetoric is loud, harsh, and divisive?
Let’s consider a political example. When Nancy Pelosi suggested that the State of the Union address by the President be rescheduled because of the government shutdown and security concerns, it seemed to some that she was being petty and spiteful. Others felt that was a completely appropriate position to take. Then when President Trump canceled Speaker Pelosi’s use of military aircraft for her planned war zone trip, some thought he was being petty and spiteful. Others felt that comeback was justified.
Based on our own bias, we could make the case for either side behaving in a narrow-minded and mean-spirited way. And we could work up quite a case of indignation against the position with which we disagree. The reality is that, in the current political environment, we have thrown away the tools of civilization that allow us to productively work together. We are like children on the playground screaming at each other in order to get our own way.
I love the saying that it is a pretty thin pancake that doesn’t have two sides.
Any time we privilege one side of the discussion, we encourage misunderstanding and conflict. We create polarization.
My colleagues and I performed research at the University of Arkansas that found three solutions to this persistent human dilemma of conflict. We found that humility, compassion, and positivity made big differences in reducing conflict and improving relationships.
There is a surprising path to breaking logjams in human dialogue. The first step is to recognize biases in human perceptions. You have them and I have them. Recognizing our fallen, biased thinking is the precondition to progress.
The second step is to recognize the limitations in our own arguments. This might be called humility. It can be painful for those of us who like to be right. It feels good to stomp around in our own self-created winner circles. It takes humility to recognize our own limitations and truly listen to an opposing viewpoint—and consider its merits.
Consider the immigration debate. We need wise and compassionate solutions to a long-term problem. The current posturing on both sides of the discussion guarantees that we will not find good solutions. We will end up with bad policy, enduring resentment, and even worse polarization.
Digging in our heels, refusing to listen to those who see things differently, and adamantly insisting that our viewpoint is the only sensible and right approach, shuts down any opportunity to effectively problem solve. It also shuts downs the motivation of others to listen to us. When both sides close down their willingness to consider other options it becomes impossible to seek new ideas for solutions that both sides might be able to live with.
For those of us who are disciples of Christ, there is an additional consideration. Jesus gave a commandment and then identified it as the signpost by which others could see our discipleship: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples; if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35) There was no clause that exempts us from this commandment when we think we are right about a political or doctrinal issue. Even in those situations, if we approach others without charity and compassion, the Savior instructs us they will be less able to view us as representatives of Him. Even if we believe our views to be truth, if we express them in a spirit of disrespect and contention, we are inching towards Satan’s territory.
How would God have us act in contentious times? We can avoid creating or spreading inflammatory and accusing posts on social media. Instead, we can state our views in a way that is more likely to be considered by others: “Obviously you feel strongly about this issue and I respect that. Here are some of my thoughts…” We can try to understand the positions of others. We can be suspicious of one-sided stories and do some fact-checking. And even if we continue to believe that our position has merit, we can invite creative problem solving. We can remember that simply crowing we are right does not result in a solution.
This is not a game in which we work to score points and defeat the “enemy.” This is a joint project to build our country and make the world a better place. It is no victory to be more vicious than our enemies when we all lose.
I encourage all of us to be humbler, to be willing to value other people’s perspectives, and to look for the good in the people and arguments on both sides of the discussion. Let’s lay down our weapons of war. Let’s stop throwing verbal firebombs at people. Let’s not overreact to statements with which we disagree. Let’s have conversations with people who are willing to join us in solution-seeking. Let’s bring the best of everyone’s perspectives to solving our problems.
While the political policies we settle upon matters, in the Lord’s eyes it matters far more how His children treat each other.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her substantial contributions to this article.
To learn more about biases and the way they impact our relationships, see the 12 page workbook, Getting Our Hearts Right, Three Keys to Better Relationships at https://www.uaex.edu/health-living/personal-family-well-being/personal/getting-hearts-right.aspx or read The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.