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!