Courage to Connect in Polarized Times

hands outstreched
October 9, 2020

The stakes feel high these days. For months now, our nervous systems have been in overdrive at a global scale, as we struggle to navigate the uncertainties of a persistent pandemic. For years now, social unrest has been stirring in communities around the world, as our increasing access to information has revealed gross inequities and the divisive impacts of misinformation.

It’s true: we’re living in a moment ripe for polarization and fear. So what does it take to be courageous in these times? Particularly, what does it mean to be courageous in our relationships, communities, and workplaces, when social divides are so palpable and high- stakes?

To get on the same page, let’s start with a dictionary definition of polarization: “division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs.” 

Sounds simple enough: we value diversity, so why not have contrasting opinions and beliefs? Absolutely, diversity of beliefs and opinions is foundational to a healthy democracy. Healthy tension is how we learn, grow, innovate, and build toward a more inclusive society. The distinguishing term here is sharply. Today, that sharply is becoming extreme. 

In the modern age of social media, misinformation, and algorithms that are trained to feed us more and more of what we already believe — regardless if it’s factual or “fake news” — polarization is on the rise at alarming rates. Studies on polarization show that when individuals discuss topics in a group of like-minded people, the individuals emerge with even stronger, more extreme beliefs. In a world where algorithms funnel us into echo chambers, it’s no surprise we’re falling deeper into polarization at mass scales. 

We’re essentially creating in-group cultural bubbles. It doesn’t help that our brains are wired to more naturally trust people we see as similar to us. Luckily, with some intention, awareness, and practice, we have the capacity to shift this dynamic and interrupt polarization. Cue: Courage. 

We need courage because it’s no easy feat to overcome polarization and reach toward one another. It can help to begin with small steps. What can each of us do in our own lives to move into courageous conversations? Here are a few tips to help you navigate your way:

  1. Expand your in-group. Polarization means our in-groups are getting smaller and smaller. In-groups are formed when you share interests or identities with others. For example, I’m a cat person. Cat people are my people! Dog people might be rolling their eyes as they read this. Liberal is an in-group. Conservative is an in-group. Dancers, athletes, bookworms, world travelers, gamers, gardeners, sports fans — you name it, we form in-groups around all kinds of identities.

The good news is that we can hold multiple identities and can form in-groups around any aspect of our identities. Finding commonalities helps us expand our in-groups, creating a sense of connection, and getting our brains out of the fight/flight/freeze response that’s triggered by perceived differences.

  1. Shift your posture. In the last point, I mentioned fight/flight/freeze. This is actually wildly important: our brains are wired to scan for danger, and often register difference as danger.  When this happens, a part of our brain called the amygdala takes over and cuts off access to our neocortex — the part of the brain responsible for creative thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and learning. In these states, our brains literally do not have access to the parts that allow us to hear one another. So, the invitation is to notice: how are you entering the conversation? Are you already on high alert, ready to fight? Poised for flight? Paralyzed and at a loss? Are you actually available for conversation, mutual exchange of words and ideas? If not, you might consider pausing and reflecting, until you can get back into your neocortex and be ready and open to truly creative thinking.

  1. Interrupt Your Biases. There’s a lot of talk about unconscious bias these days, and for good reason: unconscious biases drive human behavior far more than was ever believed. It also turns out that the biases that categorize people based on stereotypes are only one type of bias. We also operate from biases that can contribute to continued polarization.

Confirmation bias, for example, fuels the in-group isolating effect of social media: we find and remember information that confirms what we already believe (and forget or dismiss contrary information), regardless if it’s factual. Self-positivity bias is a big one too: we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light than others see us. Knowing this, it's important to take intentional steps to expose yourself to contrasting ideas. Fact-check yourself, be ready to push through discomfort, and do your best to practice humility.  (check out this visual with 50 other biases also at play(link is external)). 

  1. Be wrong. A genuine willingness to engage in dialogue means a genuine willingness to listen and change, on all sides. In a restorative justice group I’m a part of, I’m inspired by one of our agreements, which is adapted from author adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Be wrong, be soft in your rightness. To be wrong means admitting when you've made a mistake or owning up to a negative impact you've had on someone as a way to model accountability. To be soft in your rightness is to honor each of our journeys and give one another space and grace to change and grow. 

Finding the courage to turn toward each other and to connect across divides is a crucial step toward having more honest, courageous, and accountable communities and for moving toward a more inclusive and equitable future.