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Polarizing Topics: 13 Tips for Difficult Discussions

Polarities are not "problems to be solved," but circumstances to be managed.

Disparity and difference were once topics that many were raised to tiptoe around or only reference vaguely so as not to offend others. Tragically, the basic manners related to being kind to others and considerate of others’ feelings have been trampled over by individuals at both extremes of the political and economic divide. Vitriolic diatribes are publicized, televised, immortalized, memorized, and fused into the vocal rants from each side seeking to bring down the other.

There have been too many instances of senseless violence over the past couple of weeks that represent some of the ways that different beliefs and fear can get in the way of collaboration and communication. Many of us feel incapable of working between the polarities that have surfaced and solidified here in the US. The funny thing about polarities, though, is that they are not "problems" to be solved, but rather situations that must be handled.

The litmus test for whether or not you’re facing a problem or a polarity is found in the answer to the question, “Does this situation have a solution?” If it does, it’s a “problem;” if it doesn’t, it’s a “polarity.” “Polarities” can be frustrating divides because they are basically a pair of interdependent and mutually essential values that both must be considered when decisions are being made. If diverse ideas were just a “problem” to be solved, it would make things a lot simpler in many ways. Unfortunately, opposing perspectives are often polarities and these require a much more mature and responsible treatment.

Polarities Populate Our Lives – Just Not as Intensely as Political Polarities Appear

Pretty much all of us face polarities in our lives and often on a daily basis. Examples of the polarities that you may face and somehow balance in your own life include

  • Home versus Work
  • Optimism versus Reality
  • Self versus Romantic Relationship Priorities
  • Activities versus Rest
  • Caution versus Courage
  • Global versus Local
  • Stability versus Change

When you are speaking to someone who holds different values or holds a different political persuasion or has divergent ideas about major social justice issues or just sports and taxes, you just can’t “assume” that your view is right and their views are wrong. You have to accept that sometimes you’re going to have to “agree to disagree.” That’s one of the key lessons that you need to carry with you as you move through a world teeming with diverse people who are bubbling over with ideas that diverge – sometimes slightly and sometimes significantly – from your own.

It takes maturity to hold two divergent ideas in your head and find a way to come to terms with the knowledge that sometimes “right and wrong” beliefs just don’t exist. Being able to accept that there are multiple perspectives, each one equally valid, can be a lot harder and require a lot more maturity than it does to just “pick a side” and defend your decision.

Empathy is Essential

The only way to deal successfully with a polarity is through empathy . In fact, empathy is the key to understanding how another person feels, no matter how different from you they may seem. Empathy is not about changing your own views, necessarily; it’s about being willing to drop into another’s perspective and to see the world from that person’s point of view. You have to see the shape and size of the polarity “as if” you were in that person’s shoes.

When you begin to see the world through the eyes of others, you are beginning to understand how to handle the polarities that sometimes get in the way of productive communication – especially when neither side wants to admit that the other side just might have a point. Here are some tips to help you better manage the polarities and difficult discussions you might face in the future...

How to Show Care for Others in your Difficult Discussions

  1. Respect that everyone has their own beliefs, so sometimes you must accept that you must agree to disagree.
  2. Stretch yourself to see the world from another’s perspective. Empathy guides us to help, not hurt others.
  3. Don’t insult others’ beliefs. Inflicting harm won’t change minds and may end up leading you into hazardous spaces, both literally and metaphorically.
  4. Seek the common ground and address the bigger issues at hand. There are usually one or two important basic issues on which agreement can be found. Look for the places where you can join, not confront, those at the opposite side of the polarizing issue.
  5. Replace hostility with curiosity. Learn about what frightens you.
  6. Don’t resort to the bullying or name calling behaviors that seem to be extremely popular in the media today.
  7. Use the facts about issues to touch another’s emotions – don’t just resort to catastrophizing or villainizing ideas or positions.

How to Hasten your own Development as a Leader

  1. Be open and willing to admit what you don’t know. Remember, the purpose of education is to expand your knowledge – not confirm what you’ve already learned.
  2. Be skeptical about your own beliefs. You have to get outside your comfort zone if you want to experience growth.
  3. Don’t “over-personalize” an issue – even when it feels like it’s a moral or ethical issue that should be “clear” to others. Remind yourself to focus on the issue, not the message you may be attaching to it.

How to Listen to the “Other Side” in a Purposeful Manner

  1. Learn to listen actively to the other person’s side – seek to understand their position and the reasons they have taken the position that they have. Help grow your own skills of empathy by learning what touches others.
  2. Check in with the person to make sure you understand what they are saying/ By saying something like, “So, what I hear you saying is..." can be really helpful. It not only shows you are ready to learn, but it also allows you to check your own interpretation of another's message against what they are trying to convey.
  3. Empathize with others – put yourself in their position so that you can better understand their feelings. Until you understand where others are coming from, you’ll have difficulty trying to help them see another perspective.

Finding a balance between polarities is like walking a tightrope. You have to challenge yourself to maintain awareness of your own position – between each opposing side and within your own space of personal identity. Challenge yourself to accept that there are times when two polar opposites can be both “wrong” in some ways, while both being “right” in others.