child in polarized mask in countryside

People Who Polarize

Over the holidays, we had a great day with some friends. One of the reasons it was so much fun was that there was no polarizing. We had great discussions on several in-depth subjects, but no one sought to persuade anyone else to their position. We talked about a lot of things, but nothing was controversial. I find this contrary to so many discussions today. We currently live in polarizing times.

So why do people polarize? 

I don’t mind talking about Christianity or politics or abortion or LBGTQ+ or vaccines with people who I disagree with if there is a sense of mutual respect and appreciation of differences. However, if I differ in my perspective on an issue with some people, they challenge me with a sense of me being ignorant or small-minded for taking that position. They speak as if they are trying to convert me to their position rather than trying to understand my position. If I try to understand their position, often I can see the merits or reasons they would take one position over another. Most often, I don’t agree with their assumptions, and they probably wouldn’t agree with mine. So we just need to appreciate each other’s perspectives as different.

How often do people far from faith feel that way about us? Just as I described above, they feel as if we are trying to convert them to our view rather than trying to understand their view.

Both Tim Harford* and Adam Grant** arrive at the same conclusion from their totally different methods of research. They both conclude curiosity or asking the why question is key to being open to others with whom we disagree. I find very few people today actually engage in conversations with this as a premise. If I am trying to understand their position, I should be able to state their position with their reasoning. People who tend to polarize implicitly behave as if they know all they need to know and that there is nothing new that could change their minds. That is why they struggle to see anything from a different point of view.

Often, I feel people don’t understand me. What is my problem? I think there is an assumption on most people’s part that I am in their camp. If they are Christians, then they think I hold all (or at least most!) of the positions they hold, which is not true in many cases.  The same is with those who are highly educated or white or over 65 or whatever category I may fit into with another. Because we make assumptions about where others are, we fail to understand them.

This is an important point. 

Because we make assumptions about others, we fail to understand them. 

In all of life, assumptions are necessary as they allow us to function throughout our lives expeditiously. Assumptions are essential and healthy. I assume people will drive on their side of the road, the chair I am going to sit in will support me, the checkout person in the grocery will not intentionally cheat me, and so forth. But, at some point, some of these assumptions are violated. So they work for us most of the time, sometimes all the time, and allow us to function without living in fear or investigating the soundness of every piece of furniture before we sit in it. 

But these same assumptions in the relationships we have with others that we just met, or haven’t seen in a while, or look like us, can be very dangerous. The alternative to assumptions is to ask questions. Don’t assume; explore. In many of these areas of differences, we must create safe spaces for exploration to take place. One way to state it would be, “I know there are a lot of valid and varied perspectives on this, but what do you think/feel?”.

Obviously, in the statement I included the words “valid and varied, “ which connotes safety for taking any one or more acceptable positions. This hopefully would create space for the person to honestly state their position despite their assumptions about where I would be.  From there, it would be fun to simply explore why this person feels or believes this way and how they arrived at this position. The “how” would be to explore whether they have always believed this way, and if not, why not?

Now, these would be fun discussions to have. 

Jesus does this throughout scripture. He always gives the person a safe place to share their position,

  1. The woman caught in adultery,
  2. Many of the people he healed,
  3. His disciples in Matthew 16, “who do people say that I am?”.  I wonder if he was curious about who the disciples thought that he was but put it in the context of “other people” to provide a safe place for them to state their position. 
  4. In Luke 10, when asked by the expert what must he do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him an open-ended question back, giving him an opportunity to state his position.

Most chapters of the gospels reveal this approach of Jesus. He was a master at getting people to share what they really believed. Jesus always met people where they were, but he didn’t leave them there. As with the Good Samaritan story, he shared a story that illustrated the truth to an “expert of the law” without confronting him and condemning him for his position. But, this expert was able to appreciate the truth of loving others without Jesus antagonizing him.

It would appear the only individuals that Jesus directly challenged and condemned were the Pharisees, who came after him to find reasons to kill him. Most of them were polarized and not open to understanding him. They were threatened and therefore wanted him gone. 

My prayer is that I will explore further this year, assume less, and appreciate conversations with others more.

*How to make the World Add Up by Tim Harford
**Think Again by Adam Grant






6 responses to “People Who Polarize”

  1. Mariann Avatar

    Thanks for this, Greg.
    My failing in this area is emotionalism. I characteristically emote first and think second. This has caused the loss of many relationships in the last few years. The relationships which were ’fringe’ at best, I chose to let go. The ones that are important are worth continuing to pursue. Some are still in process, others are stable again.
    Being a ‘hopeful realist’, I try to see commonality with others instead of differences. But in the current climate it seems that is seen as ignorance or wishful thinking. I suppose that’s why my emotions emerge first! Being patted on the head like a puppy or talked down to like a child pushes all my buttons! Lol.
    Always learning. Keep pushing us, Greg!

    1. Gregory Wiens Avatar
      Gregory Wiens

      Mariann, I couldn’t agree with you more. When my emotions are triggered I fail to remain in neutral. Then I react in a way that is defensive or in whatever emotion was triggered. I am reading a book entitled Extraordinary Relationships which suggests 4 ways of dealing with our emotional (unhealthy) patterns: 1) Conflict, 2) Distancing, 3) Over/Under functioning, or 4) Triangulating. It has been helpful to keep me in my thinking brain (Cerebral Cortex) and out of my emotional brain (Amigdala). I feel your pain and am learning.

  2. Thomas C Phillips Avatar
    Thomas C Phillips

    Interesting topic…and a well-written article.

    I’ll admit I keep a mental list of folks with whom I won’t discuss anything other than “the weather;” i.e., innocuous topics.
    This includes Christian friends whose interpretations of scripture may have colored across the lines that Jesus laid out for us and seem to most often match those topics you listed in your second full paragraph above.
    Their positions usually have been made clear in prior discussions and most often preclude any reasonable or meaningful further discussion.

    If I value their friendship more than bending their viewpoint in the same direction as mine, I keep my mouth shut.
    Oh, and the Red Wings can also be used if we’ve worn out the weather.


    1. Greg Wiens Avatar

      Thanks T for your affirmation. You are right, the Red Wings are pretty innocuous:-)

  3. Roy Maxwell Avatar
    Roy Maxwell

    Being older, I can recall a time when volatility in conversations wasn’t what it seems to be today. I also recall being taught in school “conversational etiquette.” Perhaps the ability to say whatever you want without actually being in a face to face conversation via social media has replaced such etiquette. Respecting another person’s viewpoint doesn’t require us to accept it, however attacking it instead is what seems to be the growing norm. Very few, if any, controversial conversations are resolved on social media. But have that same conversation over a cup of coffee and it is amazing how much more civil it becomes.

  4. Gregory Wiens Avatar
    Gregory Wiens

    Exactly right. Listening and seeking to understand their position doesn’t mean I agree with them, it only means I value them as a person. This is pretty central to Jesus’ teaching. Thanks Roy,

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