It might feel as though the last thing you want to do these days is talk to the other team—whether you disagree on politics or parenting, clean eating or climate change. Here’s why you should do it anyway.
In these cats-and-dogs times, tolerance—the ability to respect someone even if the two of you disagree—seems harder than ever to find. More and more, say experts, we’re closing ourselves off from those who don’t see the world as we do, whether the disagreement is about politics, parenting, or climate change. Our Facebook feeds can act as echo chambers, letting us hear only the perspectives of those we already agree with, and some demographers note that more people are moving to towns where everyone else thinks and votes like them. When someone on the other side speaks, we often hear it as Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Wah wah wah.” The result: “When you only hang out with your own, it can be very hard to see that there could be another reality,” says Vernā Myers, a diversity consultant in Baltimore. “We are losing our empathy muscles from lack of use.”
Without taking your fingers out of your ears and engaging, there can never be understanding, let alone agreement. And all this divisiveness takes a psychic toll. Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut, sees it all the time: “Patients come in unsettled and stressed. We all long for connection, and the kind of breakdown in under- standing we’re experiencing is painful.” It limits your own horizons too. “Creativity and innovation only happen when you are exposed to a wide range of viewpoints,” says Greenberg.
Training yourself to become more tolerant may seem like an impossible goal when others think so differently, but you can start with just a few minutes of real talk. Consider what happened when volunteers went door-to-door canvassing to reduce prejudice against transgender people, as reported in 2016 in the journal Science. Instead of debating facts, the canvassers initiated conversations, with both sides sharing the life experiences that led them to their positions. The upshot? Large reductions in prejudice that persisted even three months later.
No need for you to go knocking on doors to exercise your empathy muscles: Use these strategies to start connecting with the people in your life who—let’s admit it—you sometimes find hard to tolerate.
Instead Of: Getting into a shouting match with Uncle Joe over your views on politics or parenting
Try Tolerance: Go for understanding, not agreement.
Fighting over big issues with family can just deepen divisions. What doesn’t work: jousting over facts (we can all cherry-pick) or pointing out cleverly why the other person is so wrong.
A better approach next time you and your uncle square off: Simply try to understand his take. What moments from his past have made him think the way he does? “If your goal is just to hear the other person’s perspective, not change his mind, that takes some of the pressure off the conversation,” says Vaile Wright, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at the American Psychological Association.
Uncle Joe has to be willing too, of course. Start by saying, “We agree on a lot of things, but not this issue. Would it be OK if we talked about it? I’m interested in your thinking.” Then ask lots of whys, suggests Michelle Buck, PhD, clinical professor of leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. You might gain some insight into how his child- hood, family, or work experience shaped his view of the world. “A lot of opinions are based on our fears. If we can connect on the level of emotions, we will feel more empathetic with the other side,” says Wright. Even if his answers make you uncomfortable, lean in, says Buck. Say, “Tell me more where that came from. I am really going to listen.”
In the end, “you want to validate that the other person was willing to share, but you don’t have to validate his content,” says Wright. Remember, tolerance is about understanding, not agreeing. But your patient questioning might help Uncle Joe reconsider his take on the issue. Or—who knows?— you just might change yours.
Instead Of: Hiding from the new neighbor with the appalling (to you) yard sign
Try Tolerance: Seek out a little bit of common ground you can share.
You hustle into the house, eyes buried in your mail. How could you have anything to say to someone clearly in the enemy camp? While your reaction might be intolerant, it is natural: Our brains evolved to instantly sort people into categories as a way to triage threats in the world around us. “We tend to see only the differences in other people, rather than getting to know the part that is most like us,” says Myers.
Make an effort to see your neighbor as a unique individual, not just as a representative of a faceless group, says Maryam Abdullah, PhD, parenting program director at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Look for just one thing you have in common. Maybe she has a vegetable garden too. Or find one thing you admire about her, and you’ll begin to understand that this person exists apart from the group- membership category you assigned her.” It goes both ways, says CNN commentator Sally Kohn, author of The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity. “You bring a pie and it helps her see you’re not just a category but a person.”
Or consider bonding with your not-so-like-minded neighbors by starting a “Bridge Book” club. By crunching data from the review site Goodreads, Andrew Piper, PhD, a professor of literature at McGill University in Montreal, came up with a list of more than 100 books that were loved by both liberal and conservative readers. (Among them: To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, and Jane Eyre; get the full list at realsimple.com/bridgebooks.) These books often include first-person voices and nuanced takes on social issues. “When people read these books, they appear to embrace a more tolerant worldview,” says Piper.
During discussions, stay close to the text. “Returning to what the book says will defuse tension and get your group thinking,” says Piper. Read a passage and ask for reactions. And encourage your group to relate to the characters’ struggle by asking, “Did something similar ever happen to you?” Adds Piper, “A great work of fiction can show us experiences we’ve all had.”
Instead Of: Unfriending your high school bestie who now posts daily screeds
Try Tolerance: Use social media to actually connect.
It’s clear our Twitter feuds and Facebook dustups fuel the fires of intolerance. “Social media gives us a license to say things we wouldn’t otherwise,” says Nikki Usher, PhD, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “It’s very easy to call someone misinformed or stupid when you don’t have to say it to her face.” But unless your old pal is truly offensive (say, given to racist or homophobic slurs), don’t block her. “It’s important to expose yourself to a wide range of perspectives—even those you don’t agree with,” says Usher. You will find that people on the other side are in many ways—gasp!—just like you: Amid her rants on gun policy, there are pictures of her kids’ first day of school and the same baby sloth video you liked.
The public nature of social media has an upside as well. “You’re talking not just to a friend but also to those in her network,” says Usher. “If you engage in a respectful and thoughtful way, you might sway others.” That’s the approach Kohn uses with her many Twitter trolls. Among her go-tos: humor and the high road. “If you can laugh together, that’s incredibly powerful,” says Kohn. “I feel much better when I send a compassionate tweet than when I send a hateful tweet. Surprisingly often, the other person will respond in kind.”