How We Become Polarised, and How We Can Reconnect
Sometimes it can feel like the world is becoming increasingly divided and polarised, with little space for constructive debate
Nancy Kline explores the power of listening without interruption
“Polarisation is not an act of disagreement. It is an act of disconnection.”
Our hearts are breaking. We love each other. We do. But we cannot talk to each other. Not now. We used to be able to. We used to hear differences between us and make it through the conversation all right. Usually. But something has happened. Something since Brexit. Or climate change. Or Trump. Or Covid. Something. Something has happened and we now, as a nation, as a world, but more painfully as friends, and most painfully as family, cannot talk. Not now. Not about these things. We skirt. We scream. We scatter. And sometimes we don’t return. We simply cannot, will not, listen any more. Not to that. Not to those differences, those felt monolithic differences of view, of alignment, of allegiance. Not to that slinging of threat.
That is what it is to us, a threat. That is why we cannot go there, or if we do, we cannot stay. When we enter those subjects and hear those differences, we register a threat so profound, so fundamental, we rage. We become out-raged. We close out; we want out. We leave.
Why? What for heaven’s sake has happened? They call it polarisation. “We are polarised,” they say. Fine. So now what? Now we can….? Get over it? Apparently not. One of my colleagues said it exactly: “I don’t want to get over it. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to understand them. I want to stay me.”
To stay me. That was the moment I got it. I understood. These particular differences are different because they strip us of “me.” Or seem to. We feel they do. We feel that the other’s different view on these topics is a threat to our very being. And here is the disabler: we feel that merely to listen to the different view, even to listen to understand (forget about convince) the other, is to prostrate ourselves, our actual selves, at the putrefying feet of a view so wrong, so elementally flawed that even to hear it through is to risk its putrefying us. It is, we feel, to risk the dissolution of our core identity. And we will not agree to that destruction of self. So, yes, we rage and flee. Or stop starting conversations in the first place. We’re gone.
One person at a time
There is, though, something we can do about this. I didn’t think there was. For a while I thought that polarisation was too big a thing for one person at a time to affect. But it isn’t. Polarisation is precisely one person at a time. It is, I am finding, one person interrupting another person, and that other person interrupting the person who interrupted them, so that within fewer than five minutes the behemoth of polarisation snaps into being and gestates like a mad thing until it is all there is in the room.
Interruption. Can it be that simple? No. Because interruption is not simple at all. Interruption is a complex killer. Its arsenal is adrenalin/cortisol, the hormone slayer of thought and respect. And love.
It works like this: You speak. What you say surprises me. It is different from what I think. The more I hear, the more differences I hear. Soon I cannot believe that someone I respect could hold that view. I stop hearing the nuances in what you are saying. I clump everything I’ve heard into one generic take. You are a “––––––––––“. How could you be that? I begin to feel you are a danger to me. I label. And then I interrupt.
Stop there. That is the breeding ground. The conditions are ready. Your brain has just lifted the pump handle of adrenalin and cortisol, preparing to strike back. Having interrupted, I keep speaking. You barely hear me. My strike wounded you. And within 11 seconds you strike back. You interrupt. And then I do and you do and I do and you do.
We are not just disagreeing now. We are disconnecting. We are severing.
We turn away. Doors close.
Welcome to polarisation. It wasn’t disagreement that polarised us. It was disconnection. And it was interruption, that complex killer, that did it.
Disconnection breaks our hearts.
The promise that changes everything
But let’s go back. Let’s rewrite this. Let’s agree that from now on we will not interrupt each other. Ever again. In fact, let’s promise not to. Let’s promise, absolutely promise, we will give each other attention, staying as interested as possible in where the other will go with their thoughts, and to give each other equal turns to speak. Let’s promise.
As we keep that promise, three things happen:
First, we breathe out because we know we too will have a turn, with uninterrupted attention, and we even have faith that some of what we say will be understood.
Second, we begin gradually to understand the other’s view a bit more, not to agree with it, but to understand it. So we do not feel a threat to our identity. (Understanding is like that. It is interested in difference, not fearful of it.)
Third, neither of us disconnects from the other. We disagree. Even fiercely. But that is all. That’s a lot, of course, when it comes to highly sensitive subjects. But that’s all it is. Just disagreement. And we may eventually arrive at something new, something even vaguely elegant, if we stay connected.
Kimberley Crespo, whose famous photography work requires highly-developed levels of human connection, said, “The promise, ‘I will not interrupt you,’ has transformed all of my relationships. It has made them richer and deeper.”
“Richer, deeper,” she said again.
The promise of no interruption does that.
Nancy Kline is president of Time to Think and the author of The Promise that Changes Everything