In the current political climate, Americans are running on adrenaline. The adversarial nature of our public discourse has many of us in a state of heightened reactivity. We’re worn out by the emotional tension we feel as a result of the polarized civic conversation. Yet driven by our own fears, we continue to argue for our point of view.
But what if it’s not possible to solve our problems this way? When we are locked into an us-versus-them framework, true communication cannot happen. And without communication, we can’t develop or maintain authentic relationships, which are necessary if we hope to create a future that works for all of us.
Conscious communication offers us another approach. It begins with the assumption that everyone deserves to be treated respectfully because they are part of our human family. Regardless of whether we agree with their ideas or not, we can recognize that, like us, they have had a certain set of experiences that influence how they see the world. Their perspective is what forms their opinions.
When we see someone as a person and not an opponent, it’s easier to wonder how they arrived at their opinions and beliefs. Instead of saying to ourselves with indignation, “How could they think that way?!”, we can ask, with a sincere desire to understand, “How did they come to think that way?” When we set aside our agenda of trying to change everyone and approach them with a curious mind and open heart, we are practicing conscious communication.
Step 1: Find Common Ground
A good place to begin is to look for the things we have in common. Maybe you have a conservative coworker, but your politics are more progressive. You could choose to avoid them and judge them, or you could look to find the places where your lives overlap. Perhaps you both are committed to your company, care about your families, or listen to the same music. Maybe you see this person going above and beyond to make sure your team’s projects are a success or that you meet your sales goals for the quarter.
When you notice these things, your attention is on what you share, rather than what divides you. This moves you from a “me versus you” focus to a “we” focus. From this place you have a better chance of understanding their perspective on issues where you disagree.
Step 2: Manage Your Emotions
When we come up against somebody else’s ideology that we think interferes with our life, we tend to become reactive. Whether we are aware of it or not, we begin to act like a victim. We feel threatened and are tempted to say or do something aggressive to protect our position. We may yell, interrupt, speak badly about someone, or be dismissive. In the moment it may feel satisfying to act this way, but deep down it doesn’t feel good to treat another person disrespectfully. It’s not only harmful to them, but to ourselves and everyone around us.
When we see ourselves as a victim, then it follows that we see the other as the perpetrator. In order to feel less vulnerable, we may try to win or dominate. When we come from this mentality, conscious communication isn’t possible. Learning to manage our emotional reactivity is essential.
Step 3: Accept What Is
One of the reasons we become so reactive is that reality isn’t conforming to our thoughts about how things should be. We are resisting what is. Once we accept things as they are, we become more effective in responding to a person or situation because we are no longer feeling captive to our emotions. The emotions will still come, but we can use them as information about what is important to us. If I’m appalled because someone doesn’t believe in climate change, that indicates how important environmental issues are to me. This is how our feelings become the fuel to take action on behalf of what we stand for rather than against those we perceive as a threat.
Step 4: Know Your Limits
Let’s say you’re going to your company’s holiday party, where you know Jim from IT is likely to start a conversation about politics. You prepare beforehand by committing to yourself to come from a place of love and kindness — the foundation of conscious communication. You know he’s a good guy — a team player who always responds quickly when there’s a computer problem and who volunteers at the local animal shelter. So you decide to really listen to him and try to understand how he arrived at his support for the candidate you can’t stomach.
With compassion and curiosity, you ask him questions. But about five minutes into the conversation, you feel yourself start to react. You do your best to feel your emotions without acting them out toward Jim, but you start feeling overwhelmed.
At this point, because you are committed to maintaining a civil dialogue, you have a choice to stop the conversation. You might say, “I notice I’m feeling agitated right now. I do want to understand, and I also want to have this conversation in a way that is respectful to you and me, so maybe we can continue it at another time.” In doing so, you become a model for everyone in the room, and you maintain the relationship with your coworker while also taking care of yourself.
Not everyone you meet is going to be interested in engaging in a conscious dialogue. There are people who don’t want to hear anyone else’s point of view and who are more than happy to push their agenda with violence and hate. There have always been despots and abusers — people who hang out on the dark side of the psyche. You can wish them love and peace in your mind, but engaging them directly may not be in your best interest.
Step 5: Stick With It
Developing a relationship takes time. It may take a while until you can manage your own reactivity enough to stay in an open and engaged state. At some point, if the other person is also open, you may want to express your own experiences and opinions. When you do, take ownership of what you’re saying. Instead of refuting their story or spouting facts, speak from your own experience. If they’re not interested in listening, or you get too reactive, then you can choose to end the conversation.
But don’t give up entirely. Relationships happen when you show up, sincerely, time and time again. Give yourself whatever time you need between conversations, and look for other ways to maintain a connection. For example, if they told you something about an interest of theirs and you come across an article about that topic, you might decide to share it with them. Small actions like this indicate that you care about them as a person and you are making a sincere effort to connect with them. In this way you build mutual respect that can be the foundation for a genuine and productive conversation about our shared future.
Louise M. Finlayson, PhD, is a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and transformational coach who has been inspiring lasting transformation in people for more than 25 years. In addition to her private practice, she leads retreats and workshops on conscious living and finding alignment with values, passion, and purpose.