I had dinner with a new colleague a couple nights ago. The dinner discussion was similar to those that many of you, I expect, have had with friends or acquaintances. We shared our backgrounds, family history, hobbies, and then the conversation turned to current events and the political environment in the US. This led to one of my favorite topics:
“Why have our personal views and beliefs become so polarized, and what positive steps can we take to improve the relationship we have with one another?”
It is clear that many people do not take the time to listen to one another. As I frequently explain to my Kellogg students and executives, I believe the key is to develop a BALANCED PERSPECTIVE by taking the time to understand multiple views, not just your own. Or, using a quote from St. Francis, “seek to understand before you are understood.” I am constantly reminded of something my grandfather used to tell me, “Harry, life is much simpler when you only understand your side of the story.” 😉
Think of how often you hear people say, “I don’t understand where you are coming from.” It took me a while to realize that when people say that, they often don’t really want to understand. It seems they just want you to know that they disagree with you! The other day, when someone loudly proclaimed in a meeting, “Harry, I don’t understand where you are coming from.” I politely responded, “would you like to understand? If so, I am happy to explain it to you, and then you can decide to either agree or disagree.” 😉
When I am asked why so many topics have become polarized, I usually blame the fact that what used to be NEWS has been replaced by OPINIONS. In addition, it is clear that social media has enabled the creation of “echo chambers,” in which many people only hear opinions and perspectives that are consistent with what they want to hear. Often, it isn’t even that they disagree with other perspectives; they don’t believe other perspectives exist. No wonder people cannot find the middle ground. There is only “their” ground.
While these perspectives may be true, my colleague provided another perspective for the root cause that I had not thought of when he asked an interesting question: “What is today our common experience as Americans?” It really caused me to reflect, and I asked him to explain his perspective and share some examples. He mentioned that many of our grandfathers and fathers served in the military and had common experiences that helped them to relate to one another throughout their lives. It created a common bond. He noted that as recently as ten years ago, grade school and high school students shared common experiences regardless of what cities or states they lived in. Clearly, what is now taught in Alabama and Georgia is different than the curriculum in New York and California. There is even disagreement regarding what books can be used. It appears that what used to be agreed upon facts are no longer facts. Welcome to the world of “false facts.”
As I reflected on my colleague’s comments, it reminded me of other examples. When I was growing up, there were only three TV stations, and most of us watched the same shows and had common experiences that we could share with one another. We all played on multiple pick-up sports teams after school rather than now students spending endless hours on social media.
Nevertheless, despite the current environment, I remain optimistic! Why? Because I believe more and more people are beginning to realize that focusing on polarization solves nothing. Focusing on the extreme right or extreme left limits our ability to realize the answer is almost always in the middle. For example, if you watch CNN, I recommend that you also watch FOX (I prefer to watch no television). If you read the WSJ, I also recommend you read the NYT, the Financial Times, and the Economist. Then, after taking the time to understand multiple perspectives, decide what you believe makes the most sense. My guess is it will usually be somewhere in the middle.