Ideology drives us apart. Neuroscience can bring us back together.

A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.

SARAH RUGER: People aren't naturally equipped to deal productively with difference. In fact, neuroscientifically, psychologically, socially, we're very wired into fear and to retreat from the 'Other' or the different and it takes an intervention of some sort to promote openness mentally.

If you throw highly different, highly diverse, highly divided people together without a framework or without some sort of bonding experience first it can have the opposite of the intended effect and actually cause more of a clash, more of a feeling of discomfort and ultimately more otherization between those divided peoples. So some of the things that can break down those barriers when you bring them together are things like awe. So there's a fantastic neuroscientist out there by the name of Dr. Beau Lotto, who I believe you all have spoken with before, he's done some interesting work on how things like awe or how things like play can cause people to let go of their fear, let go of their anxiety so that they enter a mental state where they're capable of being curious and entertaining a new experience. Or maybe it's having some sort of shared trial or tribulation that bonds you before you actually deal with the difficult issues.

There is a really fantastic commercial from about a year ago that I think Heineken put on, where it showed two very different people, what the audience knew to be very different people, building a bar together and just talking with each other and struggling to build this bar. And then once the bar is constructed they realize that they held wildly differing beliefs, whether they were differing political beliefs or maybe some prejudices towards each other that they weren't even aware of, and the commercial revealed this to them and then asked if they wanted to sit down and have a drink together now that they knew about this divide. And since they just spent that previous hour toiling over the building of the bar and getting to know the other person as a human being before they got to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs they all sat down and shared a drink together and bonded.

It's important to take the time to have an icebreaker moment before engaging in that conversation, before jumping right into the hot topics that are going to make an individual inclined to jump out of their seat and stop listening and start fighting. So begin with a dinner, began with a meal, begin with literal breaking bread and asking questions of each other in a personal context that help you get to know the other individual as a human being. Some of the other icebreakers that neuroscience and psychology are showing are productive and facilitating active listening and an open mind are things like humor. So take in some humorous content or some awe-inspiring artistic content or go do something active like go for a hike, go for a walk. Studies show that engaging in nature or going through some sort of tribulation, even if it's something as minimally challenging as physical exercise, actually helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. And then begin to ask questions around the difficult topics.

We're looking at huge, complex, intractable problems in our country today. We're talking about a broken criminal justice system, we're talking about a broken immigration system, we're talking about healthcare, we're talking about free expression in a digital age. These are not things that any one person has the answer to and anybody who says they have the absolute right answer is probably trying to sell you something or has a self-interest that you might want to be a little bit skeptical of. We're going to solve these problems by coming together across divides and having conversations with anyone to do good and no one to do harm and to look forward and discuss possible solutions. I become deeply concerned when those conversations are not possible.

  • How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
  • To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations

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