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Polarized Images

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The other day I happened to glance at a comic strip in the Washington Post called “Brewster Rockit: Space Guy!” by Tim Richard. Illustrated with a spaceman, a “Planet Quiz” asked, “You are on a planet whose inhabitants are rude, close-minded, and belligerent. You are on: A. Neptune; B. Pluto; C. Uranus; D. Saturn.” The answer was “None of the above. You never left Earth.”

This made me smile, but only briefly. I’ve been thinking lately about how polarized and intolerant many of us have become in the face of views that are radically different from our own. Consider all the ideology-based conflicts in the world today, as well as the bipartisan hostility of the presidential primary season.

How can you handle situations where clients or colleagues exhibit intolerant behavior–or you do yourself? Here are some examples calling for more open-mindedness, and ideas that can help you understand and deal with them.

Q: In the middle of a planning session, one of my clients burst out in a rant about a certain presidential candidate who would “destroy America.” He went on to rail about this candidate in a nasty, vituperative way that I can only describe as hate-filled. Although I’m on the other side of the political fence, I didn’t argue with him because I didn’t want to harm the relationship. What makes people loathe a public individual or a whole political party so strongly? If I understood better, it would help me know how to respond.

A: “Enemy images” is a term my friend and colleague Anne Anderson, a licensed clinical social worker and former coordinator of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, uses to explain how an individual or group becomes tarred with every negative characteristic we can devise. Demonizing these “enemies” gives us permission to hate them, closing our minds to a healthy dialogue or facts that might alter our entrenched position.

When I interviewed Anne, she reminded me that thinking in opposites (“me/not-me”) is a normal human phenomenon that aids us in forming our identities and developing our decision-making processes. Also, as a species we are programmed to want to belong to a tribe, whether it’s a family, political party, nation, or other group. These natural human traits become dangerous only when they are exaggerated, stereotyping begins, and enemy images are formed.

When we stereotype others, our capacity to think objectively is impaired. We no longer see all the shades of gray of the other person or group, and we stop seeing ourselves clearly. The “other” becomes totally bad, wrong, and unjust, while we become totally good, right, and just. These positions harden, and our reality is polarized. Marshaling facts against enemy images someone has adopted is useless. The “hater” will accept whatever agrees with his skewed view; the rest he will simply not hear.

Anne also pointed out that when dealing with an intolerant individual, we need to remember that there’s always a “backstory” underlying this person’s position. I would add that the reasons why these folks get drawn into a polarized perspective may be complex and varied. Some people lack confidence in their own identity; some fear what is new, different, or unknown; some attribute their own worst qualities to someone they choose to hate, because they are unwilling to acknowledge and grapple with these traits in themselves.

In any event, you may be able to relax the tension by trying to understand what fuels such intense dislike. For example, you might say, “I see how passionately you feel about this. Did something in your past prompt you to form these views?”

You could also ask your client whether he is part of, or once belonged to, a group –family, social cluster, or organization– that holds these same beliefs and values. Does he have any close friends who don’t share his political views? If so, how does he handle these differences?

Calling attention to a client’s tirade in this way may help cool him down, or at least make him aware that his invective is not based on universal truth but on a fallible opinion. The other alternative is to set boundaries by saying, “I can see how strongly you feel about this. I’ve learned that people can be so passionate about politics and religion that it derails the other things we need to talk about. That’s why I’ve promised myself not to discuss either topic in my office. I hope you can live with that.” Hopefully your client will accept this limit and settle down to the task you were hired to tackle.

Q: A gay couple came to me a few weeks ago for help with retirement and estate planning. They’re both medical professionals who were referred by a good client of mine. Yesterday, another client with very substantial assets under management told me he had heard about this couple and wanted me to stop working with them. I was so flabbergasted, I didn’t know what to say. Help me understand where he’s coming from. I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want his biases dictating my clientele!

A: If you run your own business, you don’t have to answer to anyone about whom you choose to work with. On the other hand, I would hope that every principled person subscribes to the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance signed in 1995 by the 185 member states of UNESCO. This document says in part, “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human…. It means that one is free to adhere to one’s own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs. It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behaviour and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one’s views are not to be imposed on others.”

If you agree with this philosophy, you might print out a copy of the Declaration and give it to your wealthy client, explaining that these guidelines are a cornerstone of your business. To remind him why he consults you, you could ask if he is satisfied with the services you provide him.

If he continues to demand that you turn away the gay couple, you need to tell him respectfully but firmly that it is your policy to make such decisions based solely on your relationship with the client(s) in question. If he can’t live with this, you may have to risk losing him.

Q: Our office employs a cleaning woman from Central America who works hard, does a great job, and is determined that her kids will go to college. The other day another planner in our office told me he wants the boss to get rid of her. He went into this spiel about American-born men’s wages being suppressed by 4% since 1980 because of illegal immigration. When I tried to point out that the economy benefits from immigrants’ willingness to start in menial jobs, he went nuts and started yelling at me. What’s going on here?

A: Your colleague is seeing all immigrants as enemy invaders, and most likely attributing to them all the negative qualities he despises. Since he’s unable to let in any facts that would counter this worldview, attempts to persuade him otherwise will go nowhere.

You might ask him whether he has had personal experience with immigrants taking jobs away from people he cares about. If he has, see if you can’t sympathize (or even better, empathize) with the pain or loss these people experienced. Once he feels that you’ve heard his concerns and fears, you may be able to ask him whether he’s gotten to know your office cleaning woman. When you explain your opinion of her good qualities, perhaps he will become less rigid in his insistence on firing her.

If your compassionate listening doesn’t open his mind at all, then I suspect he is too deeply entrenched in his anti-immigrant mindset to tolerate different views. It’s up to you whether or not to tell him that you’re going to make sure his intolerance won’t create problems for your blameless cleaner–a commitment I hope you follow through on.

Q: I see family planning as part of my younger clients’ financial strategy, and am a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood. I’ve put out some of their literature in a corner of our lobby, but several of my colleagues want me to remove it. Why are people so squeamish about this? What’s wrong with not having more children than you can afford?

A: You may see contraception and abortion as valid choices for people who aren’t willing or ready to be good parents, but many “pro-life” advocates are strongly opposed to ending or even preventing new life. Ask yourself if putting out this literature wasn’t your way of saying to all the pro-life clients who might enter your office, “I totally reject your way of viewing this–and want you to know that I do!”

To clarify what I said earlier, it’s your right to limit your practice to those who share your positions or values, as long as you’re open about it. But take care not to press your own views on clients who think differently.

If you’d like to cultivate a practice filled only with pro-choice clients, that’s your prerogative. But if you are interested in working with other clients who may not agree with you, I would urge you to remove this proselytizing literature. Your office is not a venue in which to promote your worldview. If you truly want to support your belief that people should be free not to have kids, maybe you should consider volunteering or contributing financially to Planned Parenthood or other organizations that reflect your values.

Unfortunately, the negative energy of polarization is all around us these days. Although you’re not in a position to demand open-mindedness from your clients, you can model tolerance by making time to hear where they’re coming from, even when they are single-minded. In so doing, you may open a little gap in their self-righteousness, possibly allowing them to perceive a position different from their own as acceptable (or at least not demonic). This won’t happen all the time–but even when it doesn’t, practicing tolerance and embracing diversity will help anchor your business in integrity and justice for all.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore at She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at [email protected].


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