I was hiking with a friend at Torrey Pines, and we stopped to take in the view. A fellow hiker stopped near us, and a pleasant conversation began. It was going smoothly until this person said how right Trump was to get rid of Obamacare. At that point, my friend lost it. It took everything she had not to explode at our fellow hiker. Afterwards, I asked her, “Why were you so upset?” She said, “I just can’t talk with the enemy.”
This surprised me. My friend is an experienced psychotherapist with excellent communication skills. But, she couldn’t talk with the “enemy.” How could that be?
This point-of-view — seeing someone as the “enemy” — is a defense mechanism. In essence, I’m saying, “I don’t want to talk to anyone whose opinions are very different from mine, so I label them ‘the enemy.'"
How are we ever going to grow wiser and happier if we go around labeling people as “the enemy”? How will we ever all learn to get along?
We won’t: we’ll stay polarized and angry. So, what can we do? Consider these ideas:
- There are no “enemies.” There is only “us.” By turning another person into an “enemy,” we’re saying, “I’m not like you; I’m better.” Unfortunately, this only affirms our own sense of inferiority. Happy, mature people don’t need to affirm they’re better than anyone else; they are secure enough to be open to listening to other people, regardless of their points-of-view.
- Jumping right into controversial topics is seldom a good way to converse with someone. When I go back to visit rural Ohio, where I grew up, I look for something in common with every Trump supporter I meet. (I am related to many of them.) Once we have a good connection going, then we can consider wading into murkier waters.
- Be willing to be wrong; needing to be right is a type of power struggle. If you’re going to have a power struggle with someone, then it isn’t a real conversation, it’s a debate. If that’s what you want, then go into it truthfully, and see if you can win. Of course, the winner of today’s power struggle is usually the loser of tomorrow’s. But, it’s up to you.
- Set an intention to be open and respectful: this is helpful when talking about difficult stuff with whoever your “enemy” is. And, let’s be honest, despite our best intentions, we all have “enemies” from time to time. You may call them your pain-in-the ass neighbor, annoying uncle, or arrogant co-worker. Notice when you cast people in the role of “enemy.” Try instead to see them as “just like me,” doing their best with the skills and resources they have at any given point in time.
- If you’re verbally attacked, disengage with dignity. Don’t let them drag you down with them. Instead, do as Michelle Obama wisely opined: “When they go low, we go high”. Going high lets you look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say, “I did okay; I stayed classy.”
Who can benefit from this? You needn’t be chatting with a Trump supporter to find this stuff useful. It comes in handy all the time, consider these situations:
- My client who is in the midst of a divorce settlement. He and his (very dominant) husband are dividing up the furniture; my client has to negotiate with his soon-to-be ex over who gets to take what when they sell their house.
- My friend who has a very combative and aggressive boss (enough said).
- My brother who is living with a family member who is very critical of his every move.
I encourage you to try an experiment: go out of your way to talk with people who are different from you. Instead of seeing these folks as “the enemy” or rolling your eyes when they speak, give them a chance, make eye contact and do your best to keep an open mind. Often, we learn the most from people who are the radically different from us.
We may feel helpless when we look at how polarized our country has become. But, we can do something about it: start talking with the “enemy” and begin to close the gap.
Why not start today?
Born in northwestern Ohio (the oldest of four children), I grew up in a small farm town. I was named after my great-grandfather Michael, who reportedly had the first Ford dealership in the State of Ohio (he ran it out of his hardware store). Eventually, I escaped the farm and made it to the big city of Cincinnati, where I earned a B.A. in Personnel and Group Development. After graduation, I moved to London where I worked at a punk clothing store in Covent Garden. During much of my 20s, I lived in Egypt, Denmark, Greece and (the former) Yugoslavia and hitchhiked all over Europe. After returning to the USA, I earned a Master’s Degree in Developmental Psychology while interning for “Sesame Street” in New York City. In San Francisco, I was the Clinical Director for the Homeless Children’s Network and a counselor for Aptos and Potrero Hill Middle Schools while earning my second Master’s Degree. In San Diego, I’ve worked as a licensed psychotherapist for Kaiser Permanente (Point Loma Psychiatry), Psychiatric Centers at San Diego and San Diego Hospice. I opened my private practice in 2002.