Lessons on dealing with the politically psychotic

In this excerpt from the Building Psychological Strength podcast, April Seifert talks with Peter Montoya about how political opinions and moral judgment are often intertwined and Peter shares practical strategies that you can deploy to help you talk with people that have different political opinions.

I’m going to throw a hypothesis out there. But I want you to react because you’ve thought about this so much more.

 

Here’s my hypothesis. Not only do we see these cues, physical, verbal, whatever, and we assume what tribe you’re in, as in who are you? Are you? You know, the blue tribe or the red tribe or the green tribe or the whatever tribe we assume.

 

We make assumptions about who you are. We go two steps further, I think not only who you are, but what you believe and most importantly and probably most detrimental, why you believe. What I think you believe, right

 

That’s a great point.

 

You know, like so many times, like I’ve done Monday mindset minute episodes where I’ve talked about the assumption of intent. And this goes back to your conversation about calling the RNC and the DNC and saying, hey, just real quick, is your intention to totally annihilate the other party?

 

And they’re like, no, like no. And it’s a good point, because very few times there, I would argue a very small percentage of people are actually sitting around thinking, you know what I really want to do? I really want to mess up this particular group of people.

 

I really have hurtful, negative intentions. My goal is to go to the family reunion and hurt my niece. That’s what I’m going to do. That’s my goal. People, I don’t believe and maybe I’m naive and an optimist, but I don’t believe that people have that negative intent.

 

And sometimes when we assume you are of that tribe with this belief, and the reason for that is this malicious intent. We missed the point that they’re… they may very well have that belief, but the intent behind it might be something completely different than what we’re assuming.

 

Yeah.

 

Yeah. Yes, we do all sorts of mind reading. And we assume a whole belief package of of the other side. And so we might go, OK, well, this person is a Democrat, and therefore they all want to know, are they pro pro-choice?

 

But they actually want to kill babies. So what kind of person wants to kill babies? Well, only in a moral person. This person is evil. So we attack all sorts of moral values to people’s political opinions. But the here’s kind of the deal is our brains are not truth detectors.

 

And believe it or not, our brains are not that good at moral reasoning. What our brains are really good at is assimilating to our tribes is one of our most primary functions, is to make sure that we look and sound like the people that we are around.

 

This is really going to date me. What you probably saw the movie Dances with Wolves. Yes. Kevin Costner plays Captain John Dunbar. He wants to see the West before it’s gone. He gets goes out to Camp Sedgwick, where they post has been dilapidated and everyone’s gone.

 

And he comes across the Sioux Indian tribe. The first kind of meetings are a little bit tense and a little bit hostile. But over time, they kind of drop their hostilities, open up a little bit of curiosity on both sides.

 

They begin to investigate each other. And before you know what, John Dunbar is learning their language. He’s fraternizing with them and becoming friends. He goes on a hunt. He saves a couple of the members from death situations. He starts to dress like them.

 

He speaks their language. And before you know it, he actually has assimilated completely into that tribe. And we know that he’s assimilated into that tribe, because toward the end of the movie is he gets attacked by union soldiers who he then kills.

 

So and what he did, that assimilation is what every single one of us would do. In the same scenario, we come to assimilate the look, the culture, the war paint, the hairstyle, the beliefs and even the moral reasoning of the groups that were part of.

 

So what we believe down in our very, very ancient brains is to assimilate to a tribe is the surest way of our safety. And to go against the tribe is near certain death. And so when we belong to a political or social structure that does things that are clearly immoral, maybe we can look at the Nazi Party.

 

So we’re not looking at anything that’s temporal right now. There were people who were Nazis who were supportive of that regime, who knew what was happening. And they are actually good people. They were good people caught up in a system, but they couldn’t go against it.

 

So we’re not terribly good about moral reasoning once we’re part of a tribe. What we really want to do is assimilate, and that means support the group that we’re in. So when we assume another group of people is immoral, the group might be immoral, but most likely the people are just assimilating, not doing a whole lot of

 

moral reasoning.

 

Amazing. That’s so interesting. Okay, cool. Very interesting detour. So it would be great if we could avoid all political conversations. Mm hmm. What if we can’t? Or what if we decide, nope, today’s the day I’m talking about it.

 

I’m what? I’m going down in flames today. I’m doing it. You know, maybe we had a glass of wine. Maybe it’s just really important to us. There can be any number of reasons or combination of them. We find ourselves in the conversation.

 

How do we do this, like how

 

do we do? Yeah. So I’ll give you a couple of different approaches. And the first thing would be is to frame the conversation. And so, April, if you put up something political with me and I was going to calm a little bit weary about this, I might say the following.

 

Hey, April, I’m glad to have this conversation with you. I have a couple of kind of my own ground rules. First of all, I love discussion and hate debate. People debate to figure out who is right and people discuss it, figure out what is right.

 

So can we have a discussion rather than debate? Hmm. And then the next thing I might say is do me a favor. I’m glad to share with you my point of view. I really want to hear your point of view.

 

But do me a favor. Please don’t try to change my mind. So is that OK if we don’t try to argue to change each other’s minds and get those two things probably agree to and maybe one more? Hey, as long as we can keep the tone, volume and language civil.

 

I’m all in. And yes, with those coupe of ground rules. And you’re probably more likely to have a better conversation.

 

Well, and it gives up, you know, gives everybody, not even that person you write, it gives everybody the ability to know what playing field they’re on, what the rules of engagement are. And you have the ability to say, you know what, that’s just not that’s just not a conversation I can have based on those rules.

 

OK, cool Ballout. I love that. So let’s say everybody agrees. Love your rules. All right. I’m in. Yeah, let’s let’s have the discussion. Right. So how do we do it?

 

Well, so you let’s say, April, say something to me that is morally reprehensible to me. You say something which is outrageous to me and I’m going in my mind. Oh, my God. How can she say that? What do I say in this moment?

 

Because I don’t want to validate what she just said. And if I argue with it, it’s only going to calcify her position. And I’m sure we’ve all kind of had that experience where someone says something that’s hateful or ignorant or just plain wrong.

 

And what we’re doing inside of our heads is we want to go, are you out of your mind?

 

The email that you sent. Right. We want to we want to go down that email path. Yeah.

 

Gosh, we want revenge on somebody like that. And that is the worst thing you can do, because what it usually does, it inhibits a defensive or what we call the backfire effect. And usually people double down. It only makes it worse.

 

So what I’m going to recommend in that scenario is you always remain calm and confident and kind. So you go back to that is kind of a mantra. Calm, confident and kind. And you use a technique called reflective listening and reflective listing.

 

The first thing you do is you find some point of agreement. And so you could say something like, oh, that is really interesting that you said that. Or if they said anything in there that you agreed with, huh?

 

You raised a really interesting point in there or that is a great question. One really worthy of thought. So they said something morally reprehensible. But yet what you’ve done, rather than coming back and putting them more on alert, you just let the air out so they just go, oh, OK, this person might be with me.

 

So the first thing that you do is to kind of de-escalate the tension of the conversation. Next, you will listen really with acceptance and empathy and not with and then for indifference or cold objectivity. So you kind of want to listen like you’re really engaged, even though you may be inside your mind going angry.

 

And then the next thing is you want to figure out why they feel that way rather than arguing the point. What brought you to that point of view? How concerned are you about that? And so having a discussion about who they are and why they value it is so much more constructive than it is about arguing whatever

 

moral, social, political point that you disagree with. And so that’s a much better technique for us to actually build some consensus and build a relationship rather than having an escalating and devolve into where it almost always does, which is in people screaming at each other about what idiot the other person is.

 

If you are more committed to national unity than partisanship, please check out my book, The Second Civil War: A Citizen’s Guide to Healing Our Fractured Nation. My book will challenge you to improve your relationships with friends and family.

 

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