We have a hard time speaking productively with those who hold different views than us. We tend to get mad, judgmental, and just generally not nice, and that’s if we attempt it at all.
And we definitely have no model for it in our current national politics.
Maybe that’s why the age-old advice of not bringing up religion and politics has withstood the test of time. We can’t do it.
Well, I don’t buy that. I think we can.
First though, let’s think about why it’s so hard.
We humans have a tendency to think about things in an “either/or” fashion. So we gravitate toward extremes. Complexity is hard—we want black and white.
I didn’t have to try too hard to come up with examples of this tendency in our culture. A classic would be faith and science. We tend to think you’re either a person of faith or a person of science. You can’t be both.
I can go on. It’s either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. You’re either pro-life or pro-choice. Not to mention our two-party system and an election that’s more polarized than ever.
To be fair, either/or thinking is a natural tendency we all have. It’s much more efficient for our brains to process the world this way—things are a lot less overwhelming and easier to understand.
But this tendency gets us nowhere. In conversations we try to prove how right we are and how wrong you are. (Because there are two sides, and one is right and the other wrong.) So it goes.
Luckily, there aren’t necessarily (just) two sides, a right and a wrong. Life isn’t that tidy. And there’s a way to think that acknowledges that.
Both/and thinking, also called “non-dual thinking,” is the alternative to the either/or tendency. It opens up our minds and allows us to be better thinkers, conversationalists and humans.
If one thing is true, it doesn’t have to make the other untrue; seemingly opposed things can be true at the same time. Things are allowed to be complicated.
I’m a person of both faith and rational thought, and I’ve met tons of people who are.
You can fully support Black Lives Matter and also acknowledge that being a policeman/woman is a difficult job about which you likely have very little understanding.
You can be against abortion in that you think human life is a miracle and would like to see as few as possible and also not want abortion to be illegal because that’s disempowering for women.
Theory to practice
Do you want to try to get away from dualistic thinking and embrace more both/and in your life? I know I do. Here are some ideas if you want to head in this direction.
Admit your limited knowledge and perspective.
We’ve only experienced the world in one way. And as the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know! (Great quote I came across: “There is something which I do not know, the knowing of which could change everything.” –Werner Erhard).
Get comfortable with vulnerability.
It’s scary to admit that we don’t know; it’s so much nicer to feel like we’re in control because we know everything. But that’s just not the case. We have to be vulnerable enough to admit uncertainty.
Remember that black-or-white thinking is both natural and reinforced in our society, but that the reality is most things are complicated. Remind yourself that things are rarely simple.
Be wary of quick judgments or resolutions.
Work on letting go of the desire to judge or the need for a quick, clean solution. Be generally skeptical of extremes; instead, pursue nuance.
Practice generosity of spirit.
Know that everyone is doing the best they can with the experience and information they have. Practice assuming the best in others’ words and actions.
Let’s get practical. How can we apply the non-dual spirit in our discussions about difficult issues?
Challenge the “two-option” paradigm.
Question the need to choose between two things. “I don’t think it has to be one or the other.” “I don’t think it’s a black-or-white issue.”
Don’t get angry or defensive—listen.
Instead of getting mad, get quiet. Then listen. As you’re listening (and continuing to fight the urge to get mad or defensive), learn to say neutral things. “Interesting.” “Sure.” “Hmm.”
This is a step up. You’ve already not gotten angry or defensive—a big win. Now, I’d challenge you to ask others how they see things and then listen some more. “Tell me more about that.” “How did you come to that way of thinking?” “What are your thoughts on…?”
If you feel that no headway is being made and you’re being subjected to ranting, graciously bow out. “I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.” “Thanks for sharing your perspective.” I’ve found that often people just want to be heard, and once you practice steps 2 and 3, the conversation will start to take a productive turn.
Richard Rohr is a Catholic friar with an impressive body of work that embodies this way of thinking. His conferences draw people from many backgrounds and worldviews.
One of the most powerful things Rohr has said about non-dual thinking is that we don’t usually develop the ability to think this way until our later years of life:
When you’ve loved enough, suffered enough, made enough mistakes … when you realize that even your good things had some bad to them, even your biggest mistakes had some great lessons—that’s what begins to teach you non-dual thinking.
I’ve really found this to be true. But let’s not wait for life to teach us non-dual thinking. Instead, let’s pursue it intentionally.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying that because you read this essay you should now expect to facilitate peaceful, rational conversation around hot-button topics this Thanksgiving. Start small, and don’t get frustrated; real change is slow and messy.
The world would be so much better if we worked to adopt this way of thinking and talking to each other. And we can do it.