Ending Our ‘Uncivil War’: Tools for Depolarizing Political Conversations

By Judy Morgan, 10/27/10

Does the following exchange sound familiar?

Mel – The way it’s going, pretty soon the government will control everything and that will be the end of freedom in this country.

Sandy – That is totally ridiculous; it’s corporations that are the problem.

Mel – What do you mean, ridiculous? You’re one of those liberals that are leading this country to disaster.

Sandy – You’re the people who are destroying this country!

Every new opinion poll seems to bring more evidence of the deep divide between liberals and conservatives in American politics. Many of us uncomfortably experience that gap within our own families, in get-togethers punctuated with sarcastic asides if not verbal battles.

This polarization is not only challenging in our relationships — It also is an obstacle to developing and supporting carefully thought through solutions to pressing social problems in our country. Each side demonizes the other’s positions leaving little room for compromise, collaboration, or mutual understanding.

Is there any way to end this ideological ‘uncivil war’ with family, friends, and our fellow citizens?

I am a veteran of many fruitless political arguments. I sailed into these believing

I had the truth on my side, and if I could just use the right facts to shake the other out of their smug certainty that they had the truth on their side, they would come to their senses and thank me.

After repeated failures in this, I began to try to use what I had learned in other contexts about conflict resolution, and then discovered the work of George Lakoff. This article is an effort to distill the best of what I learned from all these approaches in becoming more effective in preventing polarization in political discussions.

Lakoff is a noted linguist who has written extensively on the current ideological polarization. Based on linguistic analysis, he concluded that the Left and Right each see the world through a lens of values and a moral narrative that are deeply rooted psychologically.

Conservatives see the world through a lens of values such as moral order, strong leadership, individual responsibility, competition, faith. These are framed with an overarching metaphor of a world with much danger and evil in which the strict father appropriately protects and disciplines his children to keep them from harm or immoral behavior.

Liberals see the world through a lens of values such as community, collaboration, nurturing, fairness, communication. These are framed within a metaphor of an evolving and mostly safe world in which the nurturing parent appropriately encourages children to explore and develop their own understandings.
These world views are continually strengthened by repetition of key phrases and reinforcement from others who share the same views.

Lakoff says it’s not possible to dialogue between these two world views using facts and logic. Each side has their own facts and logic that make sense to them and they don’t trust the other side’s facts and logic.
Rather, the way to bridge the gap, he says, is to talk at the level of deeper values that both sides share, and to create a story of deeper meaning that both sides can relate to.

Other widely used approaches to conflict resolution resonate with Lakoff’s approach, although they emerged in different contexts. For example, “Win-Win” conflict resolution emphasizes the identification of underlying interests, and a joint exploration of how those interests can be creatively addressed, rather than focusing on the hardened positions that both sides may initially see as their objective. This approach was developed by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury after years of working with labor-management negotiators at Harvard Law School.

Similarly, Nonviolent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, emphasizes connection with empathy for the others’ underlying feelings and needs, and moving to a jointly empathetic dialogue of how those needs can be met in a way that benefits both sides. Rosenberg’s techniques are being taught and used in a wide variety of institutional settings.

These three approaches, as well as a number of other approaches, share in common an emphasis on reaching to understand what the other is wanting and needing, at the deepest level possible, and to communicate one’s own deeper wishes and needs in a way that maintains openness and mutual respect.

While not wanting to imply that learning any of these approaches is a quick and easy process, or that I have mastered them, following are some specific tools that I have found useful that are drawn from them. These have helped me to build more trust and connection in dialogues, and to avoid the hardening into polarized positions.

RESPECTFUL CURIOSITY – Instead of reacting with antagonism, it is very helpful to move to an inward state of respectful curiosity about how the other came to such different views from your own. If one is having a strong emotional reaction, this shift can be challenging! It helps to take deep breaths, to use self-talk such as “This person has an interesting view and I want to understand how they came to it”, or to draw on one’s spiritual convictions to feel a sense of connection as a fellow child of God/the Universe.

Once you have moved psychologically to a place of curiosity, you can then ask open-ended questions, such as “That’s interesting – I’m wondering what led you to that view?” “Can you say more about that?”

SHOW EMPATHY – Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘Nonviolent Communication’ (NVC) is based on empathy. NVC maintains that if we seek to connect with the other person’s core human needs, and communicate our own, most conflicts are resolvable. For example, a person who is upset about government control might be feeling an underlying threat to their need for freedom. So an empathetic response might be “Are you feeling fearful because you really value the freedoms we have and want to feel secure that they will not be lost?” This might or might not be accurate, but opens the door for the other to clarify what their underlying feelings and needs are. Once a sense of mutual understanding is reached, it becomes much easier to find a joint solution.

Identifying feelings and needs and communicating at that deeper level can be difficult for those who are inexperienced in doing so. One can also convey some degree of empathy by simply using language that restates what the other is saying in a way that shows you are trying to understand. This could be done by reflecting back what the person is saying on the following levels:

–the factual content – “So you’re saying that ….-is that right?”
–the feelings – “I hear that you’re feeling some real anger about …–Is that correct?”
–the underlying need – “It sounds like you are wantiing…..-Is that right?”

SEEK COMMON GROUND – Look for areas where you DO agree with the other. This helps strengthen a sense of trust, that you are not just trying to build a case against the other, but building a respectful dialogue. Even if you disagree with 90% of what they’re saying, you can still say, “I do agree that in those cases it would be good to …. That makes sense to me.”

AFFIRM – It’s scary stuff to be in a conversation that challenges our fundamental assumptions! It’s good to show that you appreciate their sharing and their thought process even if you totally disagree. E.g., “I appreciate your sharing your views with me – it’s always helpful to hear other perspectives”, “Sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this and I respect that” , “I can see how you would think that based on ……..” There’s an old Quaker saying, “They drew a circle to keep me out; I drew a larger circle to keep them in.” By staying in a place of caring about the other as a person, and appreciation that they are willing to engage in this dialogue, you are drawing a larger circle – the reality that we are all human beings seeking to do the best we know how and continually learning from each other how to do it better.

You might even share your own feelings, thereby affirming trust for the other: “This is hard for me to do, to be really open to a very different perspective, but I am appreciating that we are doing this.”

EXPRESS ONE’S OWN VIEWS RESPECTFULLY – It’s helpful to start a depolarizing dialogue doing more listening than talking, but at some point the other person will naturally want to hear your views. To keep from triggering an aggressive reaction, it’s best to use language that stays with your own experience, and what you observe and have concluded, rather than making sweeping generalizations or putting down the other’s conclusions. E.g., ‘The way I see it is …..”, “What led me to my view is …….”

TALK ABOUT YOUR VALUES, ESPECIALLY SHARED VALUES – As Lakoff points out, if you can frame your views in ways that touch on values that the other has, your views are more likely to be heard. E.g., If you are passionate about reducing fossil fuel use and talking to someone who values patriotism, you might say, “I’m proud of our country, too, and I feel it’s important that use our great ingenuity to meet our own energy needs rather than being reliant on other countries.” Or if you’re concerned about keeping taxes low, and talking to someone passionate about reducing poverty, you might say, “I relate to your concern about poverty – I want to reduce poverty, too, in a way that is an effective and responsible use of taxpayers’ money.”

SHARE A STORY – People are moved by stories more than facts, so it can be effective to share stories of your own or others’ personal experiences that give life to the reasons that you have come to hold the view you have. Just as a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’, a moving story is worth a thousand statistics in being persuasive and touching the other at a human level.

ENCOURAGE SHARED EXPLORATION – Lastly, one way to show respect and caring for the other is to engage in shared exploration of what is happening or could be happening. E.g., “I wonder if an approach like ….. would work better. What do you think?” “What do you think we should do about that?”
The following scenario uses these tools in replaying the adversarial interaction at the beginning of this article.

SANDY – My son just lost his job – I’m so glad the new health care law will make it possible for him to get health insurance.

MEL – Yeah, now the government’s taking over health care, too.

SANDY – Are you worried that you’ll lose some freedom of choice with the new law?

MEL – I sure am – pretty soon the government will control everything and that will be the end of freedom in this country.

SANDY – I certainly value freedom, too. What are you seeing that makes you think that is happening?
MEL – Every day there’s some new government program. And government spending is out of control, it’s probably going to wreck our economy. My brother’s been unemployed for a year and I don’t know what he’s going to do.

SANDY – I worry about my son, too, and how he’s going to find a job. I hope your brother finds something soon. I’m wondering – I have a different view from yours because I think that government is doing some important things. I very much value the freedom we have – And, I also value compassion. Government seems to me a way to make sure people who need help get it. I’m curious about whether you think there are any areas where government programs make our lives better?

MEL – No…Well, maybe Social Security. And of course the military has to be run by government. My daughter got a student loan and that seems like a pretty good program.

SANDY – I sometimes wish we could get conservatives and liberals to work hard together in finding fresh solutions that use the best mix of good government and private sector programs. To me that sounds like the way to go – what do you think?

MEL – I guess that would help if it could be done. We sure need some new solutions.

In conclusion, bridging the divide between Right and Left will require a letting go of the need to be right and to dominate the other side. It will require an emotional, even spiritual, commitment to seeking to understand the other with compassion, and to communicate one’s own thoughts, feelings, and values in a respectful and caring way. This is at the heart of all conflict resolution and peacemaking approaches.

In reality, there is much common ground between the Left and the Right. Nearly everyone would agree that both government and private corporations have an important, and potentially positive, role in modern life. The question of the proper role of government and the private sector is an important one that needs to be fully worked through – and the process of working through can happen more easily if we are able to listen to each other despite our differences. While there are some who are deeply entrenched in one side or the other, there are many who may have been swayed by emotional rhetoric but really are not that strongly attached to extreme views. Creating opportunities in many contexts for respectful dialogue can nurture the sense of common ground and a shared exploration of what balance of government and private responsibility really works best.


Nonviolent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg,

Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler,

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving, by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury.


A) RESPECTFUL INTEREST – Draw the other out about what led them to their views – “What led you to feel that way?”, “That’s an interesting view – can you say more about it?”

B) EMPATHY – Paraphrase back or ask questions in a way that shows you connect with what they’re saying, feeling and/or needing – “Are you worried about…….”, “So you’re wanting things to be more…..?”

C) COMMON GROUND – Find feelings or particular views that you can agree with – “I’m frustrated, too, with …….”, “I agree that ……”, “Sometimes I feel that way, too.”

D) REFLECTIVE LISTENING – Restating the other’s views in a respectful way so that they know you heard and understood. “Let me make sure I understand you – you’re saying that…”

E) AFFIRM – Show you appreciate their sharing and their thought process even if you totally disagree – “I appreciate your sharing your views with me – it’s always helpful to hear other perspectives”, “Sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this and I respect that” , “I can see how you would think that based on ……..”

E) EXPRESS YOUR OWN VIEWS RESPECTFULLY – Share your truth in a way that’s clear and not adversarial – ‘The way I see it is …..”, “What led me to my view is …….”

F) TALK ABOUT YOUR VALUES – What is it that you deeply care about that leads you to your views, and why do you deeply care about it? “I’ve always felt strongly about …. Because of my experience with ….”

G) SHARE A STORY – People are moved by stories more than facts, so think of a story that connects emotionally, preferably that happened to you or someone you know, that explains why you feel as you do.

H) ENCOURAGE SHARED EXPLORATION – “I wonder if an approach like ….. would work better. What do you think?” “What do you think we should do about that?”