Learning to Defuse Anger Through Respectful Dialogue

November 24, 2021 Updated: November 24, 2021


We all know how politically polarized American society has become. There are intensely held, differing opinions about what government should or shouldn’t do. One particularly regrettable aspect of this polarization is that families have been fractured and friendships ruptured. How sad—and perhaps unnecessary.

With millions of Americans making plans to gather this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, some tips on how to defuse potentially explosive disagreements are timely.

The ability to agree to disagree is venerable wisdom. For generations, sales managers have cautioned their sales agents never to discuss politics or religion with their prospects. Why risk provoking people by saying something that might offend their most deeply held beliefs?

From the beginning, the United States has been a pluralistic society composed of individuals holding a multiplicity of political and religious beliefs. Over the last few generations, such pluralism has affected countless families. Many Americans abandon the political and religious beliefs of their parents. Sometimes each sibling has a different set of beliefs. This can be disorienting, frightening, depressing, or threatening to other family members.

Here, let me share a bit of wisdom I picked up in my criminal law course at the University of Michigan School of Law long ago. This one gem was worth the price of admission. Professor Yale Kamisar (in his 90s today, God bless him) contrasted a clever person—one who focuses on how he’s different from other people—with a wise person—one who focuses on how he’s like others. A lot of Americans today could benefit from heeding that adage.

The reason why so many conversations, whether with total strangers, casual associates, coworkers, friends, or relatives, become explosive and divisive is that the parties to the dialogue have arrived at different conclusions on an issue. The unfortunate tendency is a feeling that we have to “prove” and convince the other of the rightness of our position. The problem with this is that the more energetically one side strives to prove his correctness, the more he causes the other to become defensive and push back. Showing another person that you intend to prove him wrong is bad psychology. It undermines comity and mutual respect. Rather than try to defeat the other, try practicing the Golden Rule. You wouldn’t want someone telling you that you’re absolutely, horribly wrong about an issue, so why would you try to convince your interlocutor that he or she is ridiculously wrong? What do you hope to accomplish by such an aggressive approach? You’re more likely to render further dialogue difficult, if not impossible, and perhaps end any possibility for a truce and peaceful coexistence.

While you may have come to opposite conclusions, you might be surprised by how much you have in common with your interlocutor, if you look for it. Think about this: Do you really think that your relatives or friends have gone over to the dark side and become evil people just because they favor a different politician or policy than you do? Try asking them what the overriding goal is of the position they’re taking. What motivated them to take the position they now hold? Most issues seem less black-and-white when one takes that approach. It’s not that one side wants to hurt their fellow beings and one wants to help them. Most people want to do what’s right and good. Where they differ is in their perceptions and in their understanding (or misunderstanding) of the facts or errors to which they have been exposed.

Take global warming, for example. Many Americans desperately want to phase out fossil fuels very quickly despite the hardship this will impose on many people, particularly the poor. The average person (at least, those who aren’t hardcore environmentalists) who takes this position doesn’t do so out of unkind motives, but because (like poor Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and millions of others) he or she believes the steady diet of climate catastrophe hysteria that the schools and media have force-fed people. Millions of others, by contrast, believe that the appropriate human response to Earth’s ever-changing climate is continued economic development so that human beings can better cope with Mother Nature’s changing conditions and periodic ferocity. Both sides want what’s best for people—that much we have in common—and that should cause us to respect the good intentions of our opponents even though we disagree with the preferred political agenda.

Another example: The socialistic desire to have the federal government mandate and fund various forms of support for various groups of citizens is popular among some, anathema to others. The socialists will say how much they want to help those in need and how unfair our free-market system is because it leads to economic inequality. Here, a gentle explanation of the difference between justice and “social justice” might be helpful. So might sharing some of the long historical evidence that socialism has never worked and an economic explanation of why it can’t work, and why inequality is better than equality for the economic wellbeing of a population. Again, though, you can easily discern when the other is willing to exchange ideas and when his only interest is in proving you wrong, in which case it’s best to move on to less controversial topics.

After having the humility to try to understand the motives and goals of others, perhaps the most important rule of thumb in keeping political discussions from degenerating into anger and condemnation is to reject the temptation to believe that you have to convert the other. Have enough confidence in yourself so that you don’t feel that you have to convince others of the correctness of your position. If they’re willing to engage in give-and-take about how they arrived at their conclusions, you can have a respectful discussion. If, on the other hand, either of you wishes only to harangue, criticize, and condemn the other, it’s time to politely withdraw from the conversation or to steer it in another direction. In short, find common ground. Respect the person, even if you despise his or her opinions (another version of “hate the sin; love the sinner”).

As you gather for Thanksgiving this year, may your gathering be radiant with gratitude for the gift of life and for the privilege of living in a country where citizens have been freer than most of the human race ever has been—a blessed country that has made immense progress already and has the potential to achieve so much more. Love the good motives in your friends and loved ones, and don’t give up on them because you differ on complex issues of public policy. There’s so much more to life than politics! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson is an economist who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.