BRIDGING DIVIDES: What Does "Productive" Mean?

May 2024

(Part II) A participant in our webinar about taking a direct, deliberate, and depolarizing approach to controversial topics asked a powerful question:

How do you think about responding productively to communication that is so emotionally charged, strident, and binary that it intimidates and shuts down space for good-faith dialogue and honoring of complexity, tradeoffs, and tensions?

In the first part of my answer, we began with you and ensuring you’re in a place to respond rather than react. In this second post, let’s think about “them,” i.e., the people on the other side of an issue.

The question focused on communication that is “emotionally charged, strident, and binary.” In such circumstances, it’s important to be clear about what “productive” means. In other words, what is your goal in engaging? If you’re seeking to change minds in one interaction, particularly regarding “third rail” issues that evoke “you’re either for us or against us” thinking, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed. Seeking instead to create space for a more civil conversation puts you on the right track. That begins with seeking first to understand, rather than to be understood.

To understand what that means in advocacy, let’s look at basketball. My junior high balling experience is to Caitlin Clark what an acorn is to a sequoia (and sequoias grow from seeds), but stick with me here. When catching a pass, a basketball player absorbs the energy of the hurtling ball. The catch slows the speed of the ball as the person catching it brings the ball toward their own body with the momentum of the throw and to keep the ball safely in their possession as they determine their next move. The more forceful the pass, the more energy the receiver must absorb. The trickier the play, the more careful the player must be in their next move. Before passing, they must be sure another person is ready to receive the ball. The entire game is a combination of being aware of ourselves and everyone else on the court.

Democracy isn’t a game, but we have plenty of examples of people acting as if we’re on separate teams. We all can think of examples of people fighting opponents and deeply wanting the other team to lose. As in basketball, the more forceful the argument thrown at us, the more energy we need to absorb in order to maintain control. The dicier an issue, the more thoughtful we must be in our response.

If that doesn’t sound complicated enough, consider the fact that in 2024 other people might not be playing the same game by the same rules. Unlike the near “monoculture” of decades past with limited number of news channels, we now have countless platforms and sources. Many of those are both collective (“Everyone should know and think this!”) and exclusive (“Anyone who doesn’t is a big idiot!”).

As if that fragmentation weren’t enough, some sources intentionally misinform and mislead, all in the Internet era where fear, negativity, and dividing people between the “outgroups” and the “in group” all drive engagement. (For more on the shattering of our collective mirror and the public revolt, listen to this episode of The Gray Area with Sean Illing, particularly 35 minutes in.) If many decades ago we were all playing the same game together with one basketball heading for either goal, we’re now lobbing basketballs, tennis balls, hockey pucks, and boxing punches at each other’s heads. More than just “dribble, shoot, or pass,” we need a moment to determine, “What game are they playing and what are the rules?”

“But you’re back to talking about us, Piper,” you may be thinking. “You said this post was about them.

You’re right. But this bigger context helps answer the original question: how can we respond productively? Put another way, what does it mean to “win” in this space of potential dialogue? You don’t need to look far to find examples of people screaming into someone else’s face, calling names, or refusing to engage with “the other side.” That’s like launching a ball as hard as you can at the back of your teammate’s head: the likelihood of changing minds is as low as their likelihood of catching it.

At Stories Change Power, we empower people to change hearts and minds – in that order. Yelling at people, whether you’re yelling facts or slurs, only makes them angrier. It may feel cathartic to you – but do you want catharsis? Or do you want change?

I used to think that words could change anyone’s mind. Now I know that’s true – but it’s not our words that ultimately change other people’s opinions. It’s their own. To quote Steve Deline:

There is no superior argument, no piece of information that we can offer that is going to change [someone else’s] mind. The only way they are going to change their mind is by changing their own mind – by talking themselves through their own thinking, by processing things they’ve never thought about before, things from their own life that are going to help them see things differently.”

Research is clear that introducing facts that challenge someone’s beliefs does not change those beliefs. In fact, it may entrench them further. The path to changing anyone’s mind is through their heart. Reaching a heart requires a place that is safe enough to be vulnerable and open.

Which means a “win” in situations like this is to reach a place that’s less angry and more curious. Ideally, they’d be curious about your experience and perspective, but that’s not something you can control. You do have the power to be curious yourself and seek to understand the experiences that led them to hold their beliefs. In creating that space, you may both learn something. Studies have found that when we’re twisted in mental pretzels, talking aloud helps us make sense of our own thinking. To adapt a concept from Dr. Beth Malow,

Can you move them from furious to a bit curious?

If you’ve read this far, you’re already demonstrating the interest and patience it takes to be effective in today’s environment. You’re up for this work. And let’s be clear – the thoughtfulness it takes to bring someone into a positive conversation takes work. It isn’t the stuff of “click bait” that generates revenue or the sick clap backs that feel great in the short-term and harm us all in the long-term.

In an era where the well-being of our communities and our country seem to be a game to some people, the question I keep front of mind is:

Do you want to make a point – or do you want to make a difference?

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO

Consider these additional resources:

These blogs share my perspective on big topics and I’d love to hear yours. How do these ideas land with you? Do they raise more questions? What elements did I miss? Please use the form below to keep this conversation going.

(Photo of a basketball by Kylie Osullivan.)


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