Tug of War Across Chasm

Democrats. Republicans.
White collar. Blue collar.
Chauvinists. Feminists.
Black. White.
Pro-choice. Pro-life.
War mongers. Peaceniks.
LGBTQ. Homophobe.
Citizens. Foreigners.

Us versus Them.

In our 21st century world, it seems there may not have been a time when the archetype of “us versus them” has appeared so prevalent. Every news day, there is another story about an apparently intractable conflict between two groups of people. Rather than evolving upwards  “the better angles of our nature,” we are seemingly pulled down into the muck of our own depravity.

This has a sustained impact on our personal & professional lives. We don’t trust our neighbors. We “unfriend” people we care about on social media. We have angry conversations during family gatherings. And we have a more caustic workplace environment.

Before venturing into solutions, let’s examine two aspects of this reality:

  • It is natural—As Katherine Kinzler, Kristin Schutts & Elizabeth Spelke found in their language study, infants are more likely to engage with voices that are in a familiar language and accent. Even when we are very young, we begin to discern that someone is like “us”…or not.

In another study of teenage boys in England, Henri Tajfel found that when he put the boys into groups and defined them in some way, they would work towards their own groups success, often to the detriment of their own interests.  Tajfel’s results demonstrate that the very act of placing people into groups is enough to produce discrimination & conflict.Tajfel Study Document

  • It can be inflamed—In 1937, the Nazi Party held an art exhibition in Munich to reframe modern art, produced largely by Jewish artists, as “degenerate.” The art was haphazardly displayed and many works were partially covered by derogatory slogans. The exhibit was one of the several early efforts to change the average German’s mindset regarding Jews and others the Nazis wanted to devalue. This was an early step on the tragic trail that eventually led to the Holocaust.
When Belgian colonists arrived in Rwanda in 1916, they exacerbated tension between the countries two main tribes—the Hutus and Tutsis.  They picked the taller Tutsis and began classifying people according to their ethnicity. The Hutus overthrew the government and replaced the Dutch as leaders. The killing of the Hutu president by a rebel group aligned with the Tutsis was the spark that ignited the genocide of 1994.

With this background, the good news is that we don’t have to succumb to the natural inclination to divide. We can productively engage others who don’t share our worldview, in both our personal and professional lives. Here are five suggestions to start the process:
  1. Get to know people–Not just people you are comfortable with, not just those who agree with you. People from other backgrounds, with other experiences. While it is often helpful to cite academic sources, this commercial from Heineken seems to show us the way in perhaps a more human way than a research paper could the value of engaging others from different worldviews.

2. Seek first to understand—This will sound very familiar with Stephen R. Covey fans, as it is Habit 5 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  One of Covey’s quotes about this habit is particularly insightful…and convicting:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Stephen R. Covey

That is to say that in conversation, we aren’t really listening to what others are saying. This seems particularly the case when in dialog with those with whom we disagree. The practical suggestion here is to listen empathically to those whom you disagree.  Seek out the common ground, rather than preparing your next statement.


3. Embrace healthy conflict—Most of us understand destructive conflict. We’ve seen it enough in our personal & professional lives. One outcome of those experiences is that it can support an effort to see all conflict as bad. A raised voice, tension in the room…the world is going to end.

However, this doesn’t have to be the case. As argued by Patrick Lencioni in his groundbreaking book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, distinguishing between productive ideological conflict from destructive fighting is the key.

“All great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow. This is true in marriage, parenthood, friendship, and certainly business.” 

Patrick Lencioni

4. Separate impact from intent—In life, we often judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intent. We don’t typically examine both of those factors in our communication with others.

In the book Difficult Conversations, authors Sheila Heen, Bruce Patton & Douglas Stone remind us that in a difficult conversation, we tend to attribute another person’s intent based on the impact of their behavior on us. We feel slighted; therefore we believe they intended to slight us. It’s almost automatic.

If we are going to successfully engage others on topics that cause friction and bridge the divide between us, we need to reconsider these assumptions.

5. Be aware of your sarcasm—It almost pains me to make this next suggestion, because I have been a huge fan of sarcasm for as long as I can remember. Sarcasm can be humorous and can appear to add levity to a tense conversation.

Merriam-Webster defines sarcasm as “a start and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain.” Hmmm.  They continue: “a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual.” Okay, that doesn’t actually sound that funny. And when it’s direct at people we would classify as ‘them,’ it can have an even greater negative impact.

Photo of Merriam-Webster Website

In summary, it’s unlikely that everyone is going to suddenly wake-up and embrace everything we believe to be right & true. We can’t control others behaviors or beliefs. Frankly, many days it can be difficult even to adhere to our stated values ourselves.

What we can do is re-frame how we engage with those with whom we disagree. It takes intentional action to improve the quality of the conversation and make a real impact at bridging the gap between “us” & “them.” May these simple observations help in that process.

*note: the opposing terms used at the beginning of this post were drawn (mostly) from a song by The Lost Dogs that seem to frame the struggles we face quite well.

Subscribe for monthly Aligned Intent Updates

* indicates required

Areas of Interest