I have a memory from when I was about six years old. It may be distorted with the years, but it goes something like this: I’m at summer camp and a group of kids is mocking me ruthlessly. At some point I’ve had enough. I wait for them to lose interest, and when they do, I walk up to their leader from behind. As I must have seen in a movie or on TV, I tap him on the shoulder, stand poised as he turns around, and punch him in the face.
This is where the similarities to the movies end. I expect my nemesis to go down – knocked out cold. His comrades should flee in fear of my power. There should be cheering, but I get none of that.
Instead, he kicks me in the shin, and we begin wrestling until a camp counsellor rushes over to separate us. I have no recollection of what happens next, or how the rest of the week goes. The end of the story is fitting because, unlike in the movies, there aren’t any clean, satisfying endings to most violent clashes. The one thing I do recall clearly is that I didn’t feel any better. I had a lingering sense that things weren’t right, and that my actions hadn’t helped to make them so.
I mention this story for a reason: as much as we might fantasize about it, in reality the people who drive us nuts don’t just get defeated and disappear. Everyone in our lives is in relationship with us. Those relationships can be fulfilling and joyful, or destructive and maddening. They can also vacillate back and forth between these poles, but however things play out, if someone is impacting us or we’re impacting them – that’s a relationship.
Any of us can imagine how the world ‘should’ be, influenced by a culture that mythologizes certain ideas about violence and power. We can think, as I did that summer, that our choice is either to let people walk all over us or else stand up aggressively for ourselves. But when they’re based in abstract thinking like that and removed from the reality of how relationships actually work on the ground, the actions we take often get us into even deeper trouble. What’s more, we rarely have the chance to learn anything new or different.
I was very young when I punched that boy, so my simplistic thinking might be understandable. But it didn’t change in high school, or when I went on to get a liberal arts degree at university. Even with all of my fresh critical thinking skills, I still didn’t have my ideas about power and conflict challenged. I didn’t hear of any realistic alternatives to the actions I’d chosen as a child. My thoughts on conflict were essentially the same as those of a scared and angry second grader.
Sadly, I don’t think that’s uncommon. It’s not that information about alternative approaches to conflict doesn’t exist, but it’s largely hidden away and often poorly communicated. There’s a lot of advice out there, but much of it is untested against scientific findings about human behaviour, and it’s clustered among respectable peaceniks – probably the folks who need it least.
This is an enormous problem because, as the PEW Research Center in the US puts it, there’s a “rising tide of mutual antipathy” in many places. We urgently need creative ways to build healthier relationships with people who have perspectives very different from our own. How can we tackle ideological divisions more effectively?
A few years ago I set out to take a deep dive and see what I could learn about transforming dysfunctional conflicts and stemming the rising tide of hate. The result is my new book Are We Done Fighting? Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division, which pulls together the most interesting research, stories and group exercises that I came across.
There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy and each situation is different, but I soon discovered that people were successfully transforming conflicts, and even averting immanent civil wars, with skills I’d never thought about. Common threads included the importance of being heard and acknowledged, and the power of being built up by those around us instead of torn down. Often times people first realize the power they have to transform violence and division when their own expectations are suddenly disrupted.
Sammy Rangel for example, is the founder of Life After Hate, which works with former gang members. Recalling his own time in solitary confinement in prison, here’s how he describes his first moment of transformation:
“The first small change happened when this man called George came to the hole to talk to me one day. He confused me by calling me ‘nephew’ and saying he wanted to see me in his office. I’d had no human contact for months and yet he got me brought from my cell to his office – which required four men putting me in shackles, handcuffs and chains – and then he told the guards to take off my chains. I couldn’t believe it: it was like letting a werewolf loose on a herd of sheep. It shocked me that this guy, who was half my size, wasn’t afraid of me. And then he asked me for my story – and I told him the whole thing. He didn’t flinch or pity me – he just listened. Afterwards he said: ‘I want to help you get out of this place.’ I left knowing I’d been affected in some way. The meeting had left me feeling vulnerable.”
Threats and punishments work sometimes, but they’re a lot less effective than I’d imagined. Improving our communication skills is much more important – like showing someone that I’ve really understood what they have to say before jumping in to be critical or provide my perspective. I discovered how emotions, thought patterns, and decisions can spread between people like a virus – positive or negative. My research showed me how groups can bring out more altruistic or more destructive actions from their members.
Findings from neuroscience and social psychology explained how the overly-simplified thinking I displayed at that summer camp is central to most of our worst behaviour. When we believe that ‘the other side’ is simply evil and we are simply good, our relationship can only be one of pure opposition. In such an oppositional dynamic our common approaches often fail, because it turns out that being pushed more aggressively - as in challenged, debated or even just given better-quality information - doesn’t change our minds or reduce polarization; often it’s just the opposite.
The point with all of this is not to deny that disagreements exist or that there are some very dangerous people out there. But if we start off by assuming that we’re dealing with someone who is unreachable, we miss the many possibly-effective ways that exist to engage with them, find common ground, and defuse a hostile situation – to stay in relationship with them as things unfold. Some protest techniques I had formerly admired started to look ill-equipped to deal with the messy realities of how we actually make decisions, what persuades us, and how group dynamics work. The good news is that more effective responses can be learned.
The most important thing I’ve discovered and want to convey to others is that we all have tremendous power, but we must learn to use it in ways that are often the exact opposite of what we’ve been taught.
At present, we know how to be self-righteous rather than strategic. We know how to be certain but not curious. We know how to assume the worst but not to imagine that there might be more to a situation than we can currently perceive. We know how to speak our own language but not to listen deeply to words that can be uncomfortable. Like I’ve done so many times, we divide the world into simple binary categories and think we have to fight – or do nothing.
But much more effective approaches than these already exist and can be readily applied, even in surprisingly difficult circumstances, so long as we don’t stay mired in old habits. Let’s explore this terrain for ourselves and see what’s possible.
Matthew Legge’s new book is Are We Done Fighting? Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division. Get a free chapter here.