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Talking with the enemy

Posted: October 27th, 2017 | Community Voices, Featured, Life Beyond Therapy | No Comments

By Michael Kimmel | Life Beyond Therapy

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, she was 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 whomever 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 OK; 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 (no names, please) 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. We often learn the most from people who are the radically different from us.

Michael Kimmel

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?

— Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.

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