When the last, seemingly endless, presidential campaign finally came to a close, I think most of us—regardless of our feelings about the results—could at least agree on one thing: “We’re all glad it’s over!”  Most of us were exhausted by the frequently nasty rhetoric that threatened to permanently divide us from friends and family.  I assumed, like many, that after the inauguration we’d begin to feel better about each other again.

Clearly I was wrong. We’re now six months plus into the new administration, and passions remain as high as ever. Sadly, in some cases the nastiness has even turned violent. There is certainly a desire by many for political civility and constructive dialogue in the country today, but the truth is that that goal has never seemed harder to achieve.

As many people have pointed out, part of the problem is that we can’t even seem to agree on the basic facts involved with any issue. It’s one thing to come at the facts from different perspectives, but if you can’t even agree on what those facts are, there’s not much chance that you’ll engage in anything resembling a constructive dialogue.  There was a time when most of us trusted journalists like Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley to give us the facts, but that time is long past.

Much as I think the term “fake news” is overused, there’s no doubt that some of what passes for news is inaccurate, biased, even just made up. In other words, some of the news that gets pushed our way is indeed “fake,” and I think some of that comes from both ends of the political spectrum. And of course, sometimes even the most well-intentioned journalists make mistakes. They’re under more pressure than ever to get their stories into the ever accelerating news cycle, and that can lead to mistakes.

The problem is that in the current political climate, stories that are simply not true—whether because of an honest mistake or because of biased intent—those stories all too often get embedded in people’s thinking, even after they’ve been corrected.  In other words we can all fall into the trap of believing what we want to believe. It’s almost as if we’re saying, “Don’t bother me with the facts,” which again is not an attitude that’s likely to lead to constructive dialogue.

It turns out to be pretty easy for any of us to grab hold of a story that just seems to be true, because it supports a position or viewpoint that we already hold. And of course, in today’s fragmented media environment, it’s also easy to find tons of “information” that seems to support any case or viewpoint we want to manufacture.

I certainly don’t have an easy solution to all of this, although I suspect we’d all be better off if we reminded ourselves periodically that “Some stories are just too good to be true.”(My father—who read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Youngstown Vindicator every day—used to say that all the time.)  But I do think that if we really want to engage constructively with our fellow citizens (which of course is a big if), we need to at least try to identify the core assumptions and even biases that we bring to our own thinking. But that’s not easy to do: some things make so much sense to us that it’s hard to look at them and question where the information came from in the first place!  We should probably be especially careful when something we read or hear fits seamlessly with what we all believe. Again, some stories are just too good to be true.

All this being said, there’s a lot to be said for today’s spirited political debates. Our history shows we are not strangers to deep political disagreement.  But in today’s divided climate, civil discussions demand that we not only hold high standards of others, but also of ourselves.  So with that in mind, what if we gave the following steps a try:

  1. Find at least one person whose political and social perspective is different from ours, but who shares a desire to get some constructive dialogue going.
  2. As we engage in this dialogue, examine our own biases and at least try to identify some set of core facts, ideas, and values on which we can agree. It’s also helpful to at least clarify, acknowledge, and maybe set aside for another day the things on which we agree to disagree.
  3. Question and make a real effort to verify every easy claim, including (and perhaps especially) those that come from sources we’re most inclined to believe.

Do I think any of this is easy? No. And even if we go through this process of self-examination, will it be easy to change someone else’s position? There’s a ton of research that shows that the answer to that question is also a resounding No.  But do I think it’s worth making the effort? Absolutely.

That said, here are a couple of interesting points taken from an article in the Washington Post last year on “How to change someone’s mind, according to science”:

The research suggests that using specific examples is a big help (in changing someone’s opinion). Successful arguments use the phrases “for example” [and] “for instance” more often.

….hedging – using language like “it could be the case” – is actually associated with more persuasive arguments. While hedging can signal a weaker point of view, the researchers say that it can also make an argument easier to accept by softening its tone.

The bottom line for me is that I believe firmly that we’d be better off as individuals, as citizens, as business leaders if we made the effort to engage in a constructive dialogue on the issues that divide us, even though the chances of our changing one another’s minds are limited.  Whether it’s in a business, political, or even a personal context, I think we absolutely must do everything we can to communicate with and listen to one another.

As always your thoughts and reactions are welcome……