The third step of the four-step process that I’m recommending to help you mend your fractured relationships is to affirm something in the conversation. That comes after asking questions and listening to responses, and before you get to respond and say what you want.
I’ve adapted this process from a fellow Quaker, Bonnie Tinker, who developed this technique that she used in the campaign for gay marriage. As I’ve been working with this idea, I’ve discovered that lots of experts in various fields have said very similar things, so it’s very well grounded.
Let me illustrate the power of this step by using the Aesop fable about the sun and the wind. The sun and wind decided to have a contest to see which one was more powerful. Both were trying to get the traveler to take off their cloak. The wind went first and blew as hard as it could. That’s what it’s like when we just talk about what we disagree with. Of course, the traveler held onto their cloak even more tightly. The sun went next. It shone brightly and warmed up the earth. The traveler took off their cloak, put it on the ground, sat down on it, and basked in the sun. So, which one was more powerful? Obviously, the sun. That’s what can happen when we affirm something someone says. We get them to relax and enjoy the idea that someone agrees with them.
Despite these benefits, this step is harder than it looks. It seems like our default setting is to focus on what we disagree with. Why?
We humans have a tendency to focus on negative things. We want to fix whatever is wrong.
To counter our negative bias in general, the often-made recommendation is to write a gratitude list. Thankfulness isn’t something we do naturally. We have to think about it, and not just on Thanksgiving. Implementing the technique of creating a list of good things can also be a powerful tool to turn around a relationship. And this is especially true in conflict-ridden situations.
We also tend to get defensive when people have different beliefs. Remember, this isn’t about you and your beliefs, it’s about theirs.
Our focus on the negative and being defensive contributes to our fractured relationships. Negative comments reverberate and echo. I’ve heard it said that we need ten positive comments to counteract one negative one. If we want to mend our fractured relationships, this step is crucial.
The good news is that implementing this step could be relatively simple. Saying something that you appreciate about the person (from the gratitude list) could be an easy way in.
Another easy way to apply this step is to pay attention to the other person’s emotions. If fear is involved, validate that feeling. You can say, “I hear a fear in your voice.” And, specifically, a lot of conflict has to do with feelings about change. Fear of change drives a lot of division, especially between liberals and conservatives. If you heard that fear when you listened, another easy affirmation would be to say, “Change is hard.”
But I want to go deeper. I think there’s another huge issue here that we don’t talk about —being part of a tribe. A tribe defines itself by what it isn’t. So, part of what might be behind resistance to this step is that you’re reflexively echoing what your tribe believes is right.
We hate to consider the idea that we aren’t thinking for ourselves. It’s so uncomfortable. It’s easier to complain about what the person said or cut them out of your lives. But much of the conflict going on right now is a conflict between tribes. In order to mend a relationship with someone in your life who’s not in your tribe, you have to be willing to consider the truth of what someone on the “other side” is saying. And that alone will put you outside of your tribe. So, there’s a huge cost to you. You need to be brave to attempt this.
But there’s a limit to what you have to do. It doesn’t mean that you have to totally abandon what you believe. After all, the person who recommended this was a gay activist who wasn’t changing who she was when she said to “affirm.” I’ve made a practice of trying to implement this step and I know that you won’t make major changes … just little ones. You will still be you.
As you consider whether you want to do this, realize that this is how we will mend our fractured relationships and our country — by not automatically disagreeing, by being willing to examine the facts, the reality, and not just going along with the party line. This is how tribes change and you can be part of the change. You need to be really committed to it, but it can work.
I’ve written before about the benefits of mending our relationships. Remember that we need the people we disagree with in our lives for what they bring to it, not only to our own personal lives and relationships but also to the world. Humanity has wicked problems to solve, and we need everyone to participate. These fights we’re having just distract us from solving the real problems. We need the different perspectives that everyone brings in order to come to the best solution for our wicked problems.
If you’ve done the work to understand Moral Foundations Theory, you should be able to identify the foundation underneath what the other person is saying. Once you’ve done that, a relatively easy step is to agree that that particular moral foundation is important. After all, the research shows that all of the moral foundations are found in everyone — in different ways — and they all have relevance to our lives. And they’ve all been crucial in aiding humans to develop as we have. We wouldn’t have all things that we have in our lives without them.
I’ve discovered that it’s harder for people to see the good parts of the moral foundations that they and their tribe places less importance on. I believe that part of the reason is that those are the ones we take for granted.
As I’ve been working with this theory, I’ve come to appreciate the value of each one of the moral foundations. I’m not alone. Jonathan Haidt talks about a similar metamorphosis that he had as he developed the theory. Plus, I’ve been changed by the experience of the last few years when I’ve come to appreciate things I never thought about before, things I took for granted. While I held a leadership position, I came to appreciate how important the leader of group is. I now appreciate the difference that a good government makes, the difference of a trustworthy leader, and what borders can and can’t do. The pandemic changed my experience of being part of a group. I feel more at one with everyone experiencing the pandemic and feel a sense of responsibility for how my behavior — such as my choice to go somewhere, wear a mask ,or get the vaccine — affects others and society as a whole. I also have discovered the limits of caring about people (it can only do so much, but it’s important) and how the different flavors (in my language) of fairness are appropriate in different situations.
If you want to undertake a similar journey, I can help. I’ve written a workbook with questions to help you explore your reactions to the various moral foundations and to help you see the other side. It’s meant to be read alongside my book, which summarizes the moral foundations and their implications. This workbook could be used in a book study group or you can use it yourself. If you want a copy of the draft workbook, please email me using the form on this page. My only request is that you give me feedback so I can improve it. I hope that this journey is fruitful for you.
If you want some ideas before you travel that path, here are some suggestions for affirmations that come out of the self-examination I’ve been doing. You may borrow any of them if they feel right for you. This may require some stretching. Only use a statement if you have come to truly believe it; I am not asking you to be hypocritical. Here they are:
· It’s important to have a trustworthy authority figure. (Respect for Authority)
· It’s important to have a country/city/state/organization that supports its citizens/members. (Belonging and Community in my paradigm, or what Haidt calls Loyalty to the Group)
· It’s important to feel secure/safe/protected. (Sacredness/Purity)
· It’s important to reward people for their effort. (Merit-based Flavor of Fairness)
· It’s important for everyone to have an equal chance to … (Equality-based Flavor of Fairness)
· It’s important to care about people. (Care for Others)
The last step, what I call reframing can be found here.