Peggy couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
The Seattle-area resident and a longtime friend sat down for a meal together recently and the conversation worked its way around to current events and the coronavirus. Peggy was astounded at what her friend had to say.
“We had very divergent opinions on a number of topics,” Peggy said. “It’s like oh, my God, the things I never wanted to know about people I know.
“It always concerns me when someone says they don’t believe the news.”
Peggy asked that her real name be withheld for this story because she values her friendship and doesn’t want to end it. But she feels her story is instructive for a lot of us who are finding ourselves in sometimes difficult and surprisingly antagonistic conversations with close friends and family as the pressure cooker that is the United States in 2020 continues to build steam.
Peggy had always considered her friend bright and even-keeled. Now she wasn’t so sure.
“I had to make a decision about whether I could trust her,” Peggy said. “The things she was saying to me in that conversation were pretty cuckoo and she was so defensive. I’ve come to the conclusion that she may have weird thoughts about the coronavirus — she said she wouldn’t get a vaccine even if it was available — but that doesn’t mean she isn’t my friend.”
As social media-driven divisiveness reaches new heights, stoked by pandemic paranoia, diverging economic fortunes, racial strife and our excruciatingly slow march to Election Day, we’re now a nation of Peggys and difficult conversations are a feature of daily life. Things will only get worse, too, as we move past the six-month mark of lockdown and into the holiday season, when politics and all the hot-button issues of the moment will be fresh topics as we catch up around the dinner table.
It’s a scenario psychologists can see coming from a long way off.
“We’re already at sort of capacity before going into the holidays, and now we’re going to be going into these potentially fraught interactions and conversations with family members,” said Jonathan Kanter, a University of Washington psychology professor. “And oh, my gosh, especially this holiday season with the election coming in November, I mean, how are we going to survive this? If we have families where we’ve got conservatives and liberals mixing up right now, it seems almost impossible, at least for some of the families, right?”
As director for UW’s Center for the Science of Social Connection, Kanter studies the way humans are interacting during our multitude of crises — red vs. blue, maskers vs. anti-vaxxers, young vs. old — and what he’s seeing confirms pretty much everything expected by those who study human interactions. If you’re spoiling for a Thanksgiving yelling match over the extended family’s outdoors, socially distanced dinner table during these difficult times, you’ll probably get one. Even from people who are closest to you.
It’s those who take the time to share and empathize who are finding it much easier to navigate these riptides of human emotion.
“There’s about 40 years of research on relationships that suggests that when two people have an interaction and one person shares what they want or how they feel, and the other one responds well, they feel closer to each other afterward,” Kanter said. “We have some interesting research right now that suggests that people don’t necessarily like doing that in the moment, but it helps them feel better over the long run.
“Now you’re actually talking about the difficult stuff and it doesn’t feel good in the moment. But that leads to a connection that will protect you against depression, loneliness and anxiety over the next couple of weeks. So there’s sort of a paradox in it. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth it.”
Pick your battles
Almost all of us have difficult conversations ahead. If it’s not mom or crazy Uncle Jim, it’s co-workers or supervisors who don’t agree with you. Or neighbors and the guy standing in line behind you at the grocery store. In this particularly fraught moment in time, there is seemingly no end to the topics we can argue about: virus response and lockdown, race and police reform, Trump 2020 and the U.S. Postal Service, immigration and children in cages, the 1% and corporations, guns and public safety, abortion and choice, climate and who’s to blame, the flag and the anthem, homelessness and economic inequality, traffic, unions, zoning, football mascots, the weather.
Meanwhile, the willingness to listen, learn and connect seems to be at an all-time low. While that’s not technically true — neighboring villages used to deal with conflict by brutally wiping each other out with blades and clubs — the communication age has brought us to the brink as far as modern decorum goes.
“It’s a really fascinating topic, because you have these very novel circumstances for human beings in the last 15 years that we haven’t experienced ever before in the evolution of humans, and that’s social media,” said Jeremy Pollack, founder and CEO of the conflict-resolution firm Pollack Peacebuilding Systems. “Especially now, there’s so much information sharing out there that human beings’ natural biases are coming out in very extreme ways.”
Pollack feels the first question you have to address as you think about conflict — with anyone — is “Why?”
“You have to choose your battles,” Pollack said. “A lot of people don’t discuss politics and religion. And I think that if there’s a potential for an argument or for some tension or conflict based on a particular topic, you’ve got to kind of decide ahead of time, is it worth talking about this topic? It’s individual. In other words, am I willing to put some stress on this relationship in order to have this conversation? And I would also say you have to kind of understand a lot of people don’t do this. They don’t. They get into these conversations without any real clear goal as to why.”
Getting out of the echo chamber
In some ways, our brains are being trained by social media to ditch the idea of listening and learning, said Mavis Tsai, a UW psychology research scientist. This intractability is called “confirmation bias.”
“You just keep looking for things that confirm your viewpoints and you shut your eyes and ears to anything that doesn’t confirm what you already believe,” she said. “This is why it’s so important for someone to broach the conversation and to just really affirm to yourself to take a deep breath and say, ‘I’m going to try to be relaxed and openhearted and curious and just hear what they have to say, because I care about this person and just come from a place of curiosity.’ ”
Tsai, who co-founded the Awareness, Courage and Love Global Project (which now has 92 chapters worldwide) to address these issues of human connection, understands this is not easy advice. So she offered an example from her own life that she felt was helpful. She said after years of conflict with a family member, she set out to have a conversation with her about why. What she heard was surprising and unlocked her heart.
“So with her truth, that anger, hurt, blame I had just totally dissolved. I just had no idea that was how she felt,” Tsai said. “And I just felt so much care and love for her. But it’s an example of how I was willing to be vulnerable and my posture was one of openness and love. And it indicated to her that I’m willing to hear what you have to say. And then she told me her truth. So it was incredibly healing.”
Kevin Wilhelm, CEO of Seattle’s Sustainable Business Consulting, feels so impassioned about the subject he wrote a book about it with co-author Natalie Hoffman: “How to Talk to the ‘Other Side’: Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change.”
“It had been just kind of irking me that we lost the ability to have a productive conversation or even just a civil conversation with someone you disagree with,” Wilhelm said. “And in the last 10 years it seemed like politics has become kind of a de facto way of defining all of your values. So, if you were to say to somebody that ‘I’m a Trump supporter,’ they would immediately adjust all of their biases (accordingly).”
Wilhelm has seen the effect in his own family, where sisters of more than 70 years were divided along the MSNBC/Fox News fault line. He never understood why they just couldn’t cut the politics out of their interactions.
“You try to find where’s the common ground and where’s our shared aspiration,” Wilhelm said. “And if the shared aspiration is, ‘Hey, you know, we’ve been fighting for years. I don’t want to die without having a nice summer vacation on the boat again where we can talk and drink and share stories and laugh with our kids and grandkids.’ And when you start that from a shared aspiration, that helps melt away the difficulties that you have.”
Kanter says there is growing proof that this sort of one-on-one interaction can actually break down barriers. He’s done studies that show when small groups of students with differing political views get together and listen to one another, they begin to understand and empathize. The effects aren’t long-lasting and don’t necessarily translate to larger groups, but they do show evidence that the work is worth it.
“Connection was the difference,” he said.
Correction: Mavis Tsai is a psychology research scientist with UW. A previous version of this story referred to her as a UW psychology professor.