We don’t need to look any further than the current government shutdown to see the problems with polarized thinking. One of the first things I have to do when mediating a dispute is to get the parties to think differently about their problem, so they can move off the rigid positions they often bring to the table. Typically, they can’t think differently about their own position until they start to see the other party’s point of view.
How often do you go out of your way to understand how the other side in a political or social issue feels? It is too easy with today’s polarized media to read and hear only people who think as we think. And that is not healthy, if we want to resolve disputes, rather than perpetuating them.
Although I am conservative on most issues, I make a point to read columnists who are more liberal than I am. I am white, so I try to read a variety of commentators from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. I have worked primarily as a defense attorney and a member of management, so I seek out what plaintiffs’ attorneys and union leaders have to say.
I seek out other points of view to help me understand their perspective. I try to treat them with the respect and attention I want them to treat me with. Sometimes I even learn something. At the very least, I begin to see the complexity of the issues that face us all.
Here are a few complex questions to think about from the spheres in which I have operated. You could probably develop similar questions for the political and social camps you find yourself in and your most frequent opponents:
For liberals: Is there a limit to the amount you think the government should spend as a percentage of the gross national product? How much redistribution of income is appropriate? Is there a maximum marginal income tax rate that the government should impose to support its spending?
For conservatives: What type of social safety net do you believe is appropriate? If government does not provide it, how do you insure that private entities will? How progressive do you think the income tax system should be?
For union leaders: If you think employers should give more to their workers, what will you and your members do to help businesses thrive so they can improve salaries and benefits for your members? How do you justify supporting political and social causes that many of your members do not agree with?
For management: If you do not think union representation of employees is worthwhile, how will you manage your workforce so that employees agree with you? How will you allocate resources between shareholders, investors, workers, and customers?
For plaintiffs’ attorneys: When do you acknowledge that bringing a lawsuit is more likely to result in enriching you rather than your clients? When are you browbeating defendants with the cost of defense to get a settlement when liability is questionable?
For defense counsel: How should people who are wronged be compensated when there is an unequal distribution of resources and power? Do you browbeat plaintiffs with fewer resources to limit their access to fair recompense?
These are just a few of the difficult questions facing our nation and its leaders across the political spectrum. Most of the big issues of our day are polarizing because they raise complex and sometimes diametrically opposed perspectives on how our society should look. Only by trying to understand each other’s perspective, by acknowledging there is some validity to both perspectives, can we move toward compromise and creative solutions.
When was the last time you deliberately sought out a perspective different than your own with the intent to understand? What did you learn?