Ask a Therapist: How Can I Promote Healthy Dialogues in My Life Following the Election?

By Dr. Erin Jacklin and Dr. Joey Tadie

Searching for a Way Forward

We have just witnessed one of the most complicated and polarizing events in our country’s history. Although elections are often a period of heightened tension, emotion, and passion, this time feels different. This time, it feels like more serious questions are being raised about race, morality, corruption and equality. Regardless of what choice you made on Election Day, you are now potentially in the cross-fire of an ongoing and contentious debate, which might feel confusing, frustrating, and even threatening. And yet we are supposed to move forward as one nation. How do we as a people consider next steps when everything feels so incredibly tumultuous? What about friends or partners who don’t see eye to eye politically? Or families who have been torn apart by harsh words and opposing views? How do we conceivably enter into a holiday season with such anger, hostility, shame, and fear polluting our national and personal relationships?

There might not be a clear path forward. But there must be some way. More deeply exploring what you and others might be going through can help explain why everything currently feels so intense. A first step is understanding the stress response system. When we feel attacked or threatened our brains have an incredible built in feature that has helped humanity survive for eons. Our stress response system is often referred to as the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response. This system is a lifesaver in an emergency; it allows us to respond automatically when events get too intense for us to process in our typical manner.

The Stress Response System – Your Body’s Emergency Autopilot

The Stress Response System is a lot like having an autopilot system that kicks into Crisis Mode whenever the plane hits too much turbulence. The system switches modes automatically whenever it perceives danger and prioritizes safety and survival over all other concerns. Being able to jump into Crisis Mode as needed is vital to the safety of the whole operation, though it has some draw backs: it takes more fuel to run, it is tough on the engine, and it is hard to turn off once it has been triggered.

Your body has two main modes during wakefulness: Alert Mode and Crisis Mode:

Alert Mode - Business as usual

  • Your Stress Response System is in Alert Mode when you perceive the world around you to adequately safe and stable, for most people (especially most people who do not have a significant trauma history) this could be considered “business as usual” mode
  • Your body feels relaxed and alert
  • Your Central Nervous System is regulated and calm
  • Your brain is functioning flexibly; you are able to think clearly and logically about the past, the present, and the future and adjust perspective to understand complex problems and think of creative solutions
  • Empathy and perspective taking come relatively easily to you

Crisis Mode - Survival above all else

  • Your Stress Response System switches into Crisis Mode automatically whenever it perceives danger and prioritizes safety and survival over all other concerns
  • You’re thrown into the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response
  • Your Central Nervous System is dysregulated and triggers a flood of Adrenaline and Cortisol
  • Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies- getting you ready to run, fight, or freeze/hide until the danger passes
  • Cortisol suppresses the immune system, digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes to divert all available energy into short term survival and increases sugars in the bloodstream providing a quick boost of energy
  • Your thinking becomes black and white, often over focusing on details and missing the big picture, you are not able to reflect on the past or think through possibilities for the future, even your ability to create new memories is impacted
  • It is very hard to take other people’s perspectives and engage in empathy

Anyone will be thrown into Crisis Mode when they feel attacked or threatened, of when they feel those they care about are threatened. It is an automatic response and therefore not under our conscious control. People do not choose to get pulled into Crisis Mode; it is uncomfortable and stresses the body. Going into Crisis Mode too often makes it hard to function day-to-day, wears your body down, and can contribute to many health issues.

In the aftermath of the election, many of us on both sides of the debate have been thrown into Crisis Mode. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all deeply impacted by this switch into Crisis Mode, and it is important to recognize what can be done to manage this mode. Some important steps include:

  • Noticing which mode you are in. Are you in Crisis Mode or Alert Mode right now?

             - If you are in crisis mode take care of yourself first, do not                    push yourself even further over your limit

  • Try to imagine which mode the person across the table may be in

              - If they are in crisis mode, can you try to engage in                               empathy and de-escalation? Reflect back what you are                         hearing without agreeing or disagreeing, or if they are                         too escalated, take care of yourself and step away from                         the conversation as calmly as you can.

  • If both parties are in Alert Mode, and both parties want to engage in conversation around contentious issues then try some of these techniques:

              - Clarify goals for the conversation:

                       §  Are you trying to convince each other of your                                    position, or are you trying to understand where                                  each other is coming from?

                       §  Are you seeking to clarify values and seek                                           common ground?

                        §  Are you looking to explore hurt feelings and                                      resolve previous conflict?

                        §  Do you want to share personal stories and gain                                  perspective?

  • Notice when you are approaching your threshold and may be close to hitting Crisis Mode (for example your heart rate is rising, you feel hot, your stomach hurts, you are feeling more intense emotions and having a hard time thinking clearly).  Take a step back. It is important to take care of your needs and listen to your body.

              - Explain in clear terms to whomever you are talking to                         that you need to take a break from the conversation but                     will reengage when you are ready and able to do so.                             Respect each other’s wishes if either of you get to that                           point, even if one of you really wants to continue the                           conversation.

Speaker-Listener Technique

You may want to use some concrete strategies to help you approach the conversation. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Try out Speaker-Listener technique (both people would need to agree to follow these steps) This technique comes out of couples therapy and is used to help couples in conflict communicate more effectively.

The Speaker-Listener technique is one of the most effective ways of communicating during conflict.  This technique helps you talk in a way that is both clear (so you truly understand what you are each saying) and safe (no one fears the argument will get out of hand). Talking in this positive way helps prevent destructive ways of communicating: negative escalation of the argument, invalidating each other, one person forcing the conversation while the other backs off, and negative interpretations of what one another is thinking.

Each person takes turns speaking while the other party listens and paraphrases what the speaker said. The following rules will make things clearer: 

General Rules:

1. The speaker has the floor. If you're the listener, follow the rules below for the listener and wait for your turn to be the speaker. Use an object, such as a pen, to show who the speaker is.

2. Share the floor. Take turns letting each person be the speaker.

3. Don't problem-solve. Focus on having a good discussion, not finding a solution.

Rules for the Speaker:

1. Speak for yourself. Don't read the other person’s mind. Express your feelings and thoughts, using "I" statements to express your point of view.

2. Be brief. Don't go on and on each time. You will have plenty of time to talk about everything that is on your mind as you both take turns.

3. Stop and let the listener paraphrase. After you've spoken for a short while, let the listener paraphrase what you just said. Help him or her understand your point of view. If the paraphrase is not quite accurate, politely restate what your meant.

Rules for the Listener:

1. Paraphrase what you heard. Repeat back what you heard in your own words to let the other person know you understand what they are saying. Wait till your turn as speaker to ask more questions.

2. Focus on the speaker's message. Don't rebut. Remember: your job is to listen and understand what the other person is saying. Wait till you are speaker to offer your own opinion.

Helpful ways to paraphrase:

  1. "What I hear you saying is . . ."
  2. "Sounds like . . ."
  3. "If I understand you right, . . ."

Adapted from Markman, H., Stanley, S., & Blumberg, S.L. (1994). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Josey-Bass Publishers.

Reduce Bias and Improve Understanding

Another recent article about a canvassing study offers interesting insight into ways we can reduce bias in our culture:

Lopez, German. "Research Says There Are Ways to Reduce Racial Bias. Calling People Racist Isn't One of Them." Vox. Vox.com, 15 Nov. 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

The author offers the argument that a better way to address differences in peoples’ perspectives and values is to pursue mutually open and respectful conversations with one another. It can be all too easy to make snap judgments about a person’s values based on a surface information (such as a vote cast one way or another), which can lead to unproductive stereotyping, labelling, or name-calling. Consider this, how open-minded could you be in a conversation when you are accused of being a “racist” or "hippie" or “enabler?” Most of us would instantly shift into Crisis Mode which primes us to be defensive and less empathic. A better approach would be to resist the urge to instantly label another person based on a few bits of information and instead work to preserve the opportunities for open mindedness in the conversation. To this end, sharing a dialogue with persons of different beliefs can be challenging, but can ultimately be helped by seeking to understand what the world looks like from another person’s perspective without judgement. This could mean working to stay curious in the conversation rather than looking to prove your own point.

The article further advocates that sharing our personal experiences can be a useful way to combat stereotyping or other forms of bias. That is to say that an issue related to race, gender, politics might seem simple to you on a surface level, but when you connect the issue to another person's lived experience, it might look very different. Attaching negative labels to an individual or pushing back on their perspective without truly listening to their experience undermines our opportunity to speak with them productively. If we can prevent ourselves from overgeneralizing and also maintain our composure during conversations, we can take a significant step toward finding common ground, peacefully acknowledging differences, and creating safety for preserving valued relationships.

Proceeding From Here

Regardless of your political views, ethics, and moral values, it is important to recognize we can all learn from perspectives that are different from our own. We might encounter belief systems that initially make little sense to us. But we will not understand such systems or the people who hold them while we are treating one another like enemies. Viewing others as if they are your enemy will undoubtedly promote Crisis Mode because of the inherent threat you are perceiving. You automatically limit your effectiveness when you allow yourself to press forward in dialogues without defusing the Crisis Mode you or others are experiencing. It might be important to determine if you are even ready to pursue these types of conversations with others. Your feelings might be too raw, or the conversations themselves might seem overwhelming. Respect where you are emotionally and take the time you need before you dive into these discussions with others. Remember the concepts highlighted above for when you might be ready to revisit the topics that have carried such emotional charge. No matter what, recognize that we can all do more to improve the quality of conversations we have, as defensiveness and anger won’t move any of us forward. We all have choices to make about how to proceed, but choosing to practice empathy, understanding, compassion, and respect can help heal the wounds of our nation and among our individual communities, even in the midst of overwhelming division and fearfulness.

Read more blog posts from The Catalyst Center:

Making Self Care a Lifestyle: Mental Grounding Exercises

Making Self Care a Lifestyle: Mental Grounding Exercises

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