Sunday, January 28, 2018


I find myself beginning to appreciate something I used to hate as a child, something I felt was filled with disdain and put-downs and which I felt emotionally inept at participating in – that something was ‘vigorous discussion’. In our family, discussions often turned heated and even hostile. I would get so emotional I couldn’t compete with some family members’ forcefulness, especially those who seemed to find amusement in others’ agitation or passion. Invariably I would get so emotional I would just storm off, (definitely contributing to my desire to learn how to manage emotions!)

Nevertheless, discussion remained to some degree a part of my life, and as I learned to manage my emotions better, (particularly needed when one of my more passionate opinions was challenged!) I also learned to recognise the value of discussion in accepting differing points of view and in taking me out of my comfort zone, thereby expanding my mind. I learned that getting along with each other is not synonymous with concurrent opinions, and that there is such a thing as healthy conflict.

However, in the last couple of years my view of the inevitability of healthy discussion and disagreements during life’s journey has been challenged, and challenged too often to be ignored.

It seems that many of us are becoming less and less willing to handle differences of opinion, and more and more inclined to judge and condemn outright those who may have a differing view, even before any kind of dialog has begun, never mind having a discussion. I am not referring to any subject matter in particular, but rather a trend both on social media and in ‘real’ life that is creating more rigidity, intolerance and blame and less and less of what we really need; resilience, tolerance, compassion, and emotionally intelligence.

Whether this is due to increasingly divisive and hostile political atmospheres, growing vitriol on social media or a combination of many other factors, it certainly isn’t helped by the algorithms of social media that only feeds us more of whatever perspective we already agree with, leaving our opinions unchallenged and our comfort zone firmly intact.

Although these algorithms create an environment that meets our need to connect with like-minded people in like-minded groups, all too often those same groups allow no dissent and offer only facts that support our beliefs, making it easy to ignore any evidence that our perception could be wanting or even mistaken. The momentary sense of belonging such exclusivity brings creates internal narratives –storylines we tell ourselves– that actually fuel isolation, prejudice, and create feelings of defensiveness, leading to anxiety and even fear.

Psychologist and author Brene Brown puts it this way; “When we feel isolated, disconnected, we try to protect ourselves. In that mode we want to connect, but our brain is attempting to override connection with self-protection. That means less empathy, more defensiveness, more numbing.” Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has studied fear since before 9/11. “For the moment, most of us are either making the choice to protect ourselves from conflict, discomfort and vulnerability by staying quiet, or picking sides. Either way, the choices we’re making to protect our beliefs and ourselves are leaving us disconnected, afraid and lonely.”

I wonder if our new Minister for Loneliness here in the UK has made this connection, that there is a significant relationship between unchallenged opinions and loneliness? (Yes, for those of you in other countries that may not have heard, we do now have a Minister for Loneliness!)

A researcher who has studied loneliness and its causes and effects for over twenty years is social neuroscientist John Cacioppo. “To grow into adulthood as a social species, as humans,” he says, “is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favour this outcome.”

Our brains are hardwired to connect and to meet the basic human need to belong –to a family, group or tribe. Cacioppo’s studies have found that our neural, hormonal and genetic make-up supports interdependence over independence. We derive the most strength not from our individualism, but from our collective ability to plan, communicate, negotiate and collaborate together. And today, instead of creating isolation, social media could be a positive force for connecting us to diverse opinions, diverse cultures and indeed diversity of experience.

Almost two decades ago I attended a conference where the keynote speaker, activist and author of You Are, Therefore I Am, Satish Kumar suggested that the greatest illusion of our time is that we are independent. He pointed out that the focus on the independent individual has lead us down a destructive path and he used the US Declaration of Independence as a metaphor, saying “…instead we need a Declaration of Dependence, …… we are dependent on each other, on our earth and on our society.” The fact that indeed we are dependent on each other includes our diversity and diversity of opinions as well.

Healthy discussion or ‘healthy conflict’ has also been a noteworthy part of the research into emotional intelligence, with several studies showing clear evidence that there is a significant relationship between the ability to participate in healthy conflict and high emotional intelligence (EI). Those with well-developed EI are more likely to collaborate and to seek and find compromise than those with less developed EI who were more likely to avoid conflict altogether or adopt a dominating style. * Albert Einstein stated it well (although emotional intelligence was not a concept back then) “Any fool can know; the point is to understand.”

1.When you find yourself feeling disturbed or threatened by disagreement or a challenge to your beliefs, take a deep breath and give yourself a few moments to pay attention to your emotion, and the tension in your body. Try to let go of the tension. Exhale and ask yourself if you are really threatened (if the answer you give yourself is ‘yes’ then plese leave the situation). If you know you are not really threatened, stand up if you can and take a few deep breaths, checking your posture and opening your chest. Centre yourself.

2. Then listen – and for just a minute or two, step into the shoes of the other person. Try to understand where they are coming from. This is not so you’ll agree with them – just so you understand and therefore can increase your ability to better communicate.

3. When you do ‘speak your truth’ in a disagreement, try to stay aware of your triggers - monitor your breath, your body and your posture. Notice any tension or uncomfortable changes. This will help you stay aware of possible ‘short circuiting’ in your brain that may have your ‘threat system’ triggered – in which case a long exhale or even a trip to the bathroom might be called for.

If we can be mindful like this, take charge of our emotions, on purpose, within a discussion or conflict, our brain stays ‘switched on’. In such a ‘managed’ state we can also stay aware of and true to our own values while being mindful of the differing values of the other - and the possible value of the very conflict itself.

When we mindfully manage our emotions, a disagreement can –instead of something we avoid– become an energy that propels us forward to a resolution or to finding a middle ground, and often a collaboration that helps us act or ‘perform’ better, be more authentic, learn about each other and keep communication open. With such ‘emotional intelligence’ applied, conflict can even be used positively, creating an energy that can ‘get things done’. Most importantly, it is within a healthy discussion or conflict that we can capture the differences and diversity that make a community, group or family a stronger, richer, more entrained unit. At the very least, we can agree to disagree!