Finding Commonalities and Solutions With Decision-Makers
This guide is designed to advance nonpolarizing communication. This strategy is grounded in the principles of a field called nonviolent communication, which focuses on understanding all parties’ underlying needs and feelings to get to the heart of the issue and build mutual understanding from the ground up.
Whether you are talking with a decision-maker who views the world similarly to or differently from you, nonpolarizing techniques keep you centered in finding understanding, connection and common ground. In practicing nonpolarizing communication techniques, you can learn to focus (and refocus) quickly on what’s productive and bridge-building — and tune out what is counter-productive, extraneous or polarizing.
Hard conversations are a reality for people negotiating policy. Every person experiences and is affected by these interactions differently, and that response can shift depending on the circumstances — from exhilarated, to “all in a day’s work,” to threatened — and everything in between. The goal here is to create conversations where everyone is supported, safe and can be open — and where we can advance policy solutions.
No one fits neatly into a single archetype; each person embodies a unique combination of beliefs and values, and advocates themselves sit across the political spectrum. Looking at these four conservative archetypes, you may see aspects of yourself in one or more of them — or you may not.
As you deepen your understanding of the archetypes and the specific people you’re meeting with, you will also benefit from deeper insights about the other person in the conversation: you. Getting clear about your stances, values, needs and feelings can help you feel grounded and ready for a two-way dialogue. Think of it as creating your own archetype!
This practice is important and requires appropriate mentorship. We are offering resources for advocates to begin their learning and practice, and strongly suggest supplemental coaching and/or peer support.
Request technical assistance as you and your team and/or coalition build these skills.
Emotional Awareness Allows for Curiosity
In order to create and maintain shared space, it’s important to be clear on the values and needs you are bringing to the table. Checking in with your feelings helps you prepare accordingly before, during and after a meeting. For example, you may have some residual feelings from a conversation where you overlooked confrontational language in order to find a bridge: Prepare yourself by identifying topics and language ahead of time that feel charged for you; practicing for challenging conversations in order to work through feelings in advance; and finding ways to release any residue after an intense interaction.
Staying curious about what you are feeling — and what you sense the other person is feeling — can help you move more easily through weighty conversations without getting thrown-off, so you’ll be more able to make real-time strategic pivots.
Think of uncomfortable feelings as a warning sign — the smoke before the fire. It’s your nervous system's way of telling you that something is "off" or unsafe. If you ignore these warnings, your nervous system can escalate into a defensive “us vs. them” mode. There are any number of reasons why uncomfortable feelings arise during a dialogue, but it often boils down to the sense that a personal need or value could be at risk. Checking in to notice feelings gives you an understanding of what you need in the moment — so you can stay clear, grounded, calm and on course.
While paying attention to feelings can be new or strange at first, they provide critical, in-the-moment decision-making information. There’s no need to "hangout" in our feelings, but once you learn the value in identifying them, you can apply the same skill to also identify what the other person is feeling and needing. The point isn’t to get rid of your feelings, or to validate anyone else’s feelings over your own — rather, it’s to know what to do on the spot in order to create psychological safety and common ground for everyone in the conversation.
Tips & Attitudes That Keep You in a Nonpolarizing Mindset
Building a trusting relationship is key to arriving at a successful negotiation, resolution or collaboration. You can build trust by proving your sincere desire to understand and accept the other person as a fellow human being you’d like to understand and know better. Consider ways you can embrace the following attitudes:
You have to be willing to do the hard work of learning to communicate effectively in difficult circumstances. This can be through working on your own inner hot spots; having an open-hearted attitude toward the other person; and demonstrating that you won’t fall into holding “enemy images” of them when they push your buttons.
Learn to stay curious about your feelings, needs and values. Also notice when you’re closing down and how to take care of yourself quickly on the spot, so you can return to openness. If you can’t open up again right away, learn how to respectfully end the interaction while summarizing any shared values, and get a commitment for when you will resume the conversation.
Accept that the other person’s experience is valid — no one will even consider changing their mind or going out of their comfort zone until they feel respected and understood right where they are. Everyone deserves to be acknowledged for the level of awareness they hold, and it’s not your job to enlighten anyone. Don’t confuse this — and their fundamental humanity — with their strategies or positions.
You have something to learn from the other person if you stay open, curious and respectful. You don’t have to have all the answers. You are there to learn how you might eventually work together.
You’re invested in trying to form a trust-based working relationship with this person because some of the things you’re passionate about achieving in the world require teamwork and allies. You’re looking for shared values underneath the surface-level differences.
Effective, productive conversation and collaboration requires compassionate, nonpolarizing communication. This only happens when you stay curious and open-minded and take full responsibility to advocate for clarity and understanding on both sides of the dialogue.
Understanding the Role of Trauma
When people’s basic needs for safety, understanding, inclusion and contribution are not met, it causes trauma. When we are traumatized, our brains revert to simplistic, either/or thinking and we lose any big picture overview, our access to curiosity or even the ability to take in new information. When we are in a trauma state we see people in one of two categories, us (safe) or them (dangerous), and we retreat into “us only” spaces to find belonging and heal the feeling of separation caused by the trauma.
Emphasizing a trauma narrative is a strategy used by leaders to keep followers in the “us versus them” mode so people won’t be curious or open to what the “other side” is saying, and they will remain loyal to the leader who promises to keep them safe.
Today, the whole world is experiencing trauma stories due to existential crises in so many areas of life, amplified by 24/7 reporting: hate crimes, climate crisis, global pandemic, scarcity of resources, international political unrest and more. We’re all swimming in an atmosphere of collective trauma.
In group calls with advocates working in conservative states, many express how their needs for respect and safety are rarely met in policy conversations. They feel relief when they realize they are not alone in this hard work. In interviews with conservative decision-makers, they close down when they sense that they’re being accused of not caring about children or when they think their freedom and liberty are being threatened. Our individual and collective trauma stories can shut us down, make us defensive and unable to take in any new information; we become overwhelmed and staying in the conversation just feels too painful, polarizing, and futile.
Our collective opportunity is to break through this divide and begin to heal our trauma through connection and collaboration as we focus on our shared values as fellow human beings.