One Solution to Political Polarization

by | Jan 16, 2019

A week ago today, I had the privilege of teaching relational wisdom to our Montana State Legislators and their staffs.

I was warmly welcomed by every person I met as I walked into the House Chamber. More importantly, many people came up afterwards to express their appreciation for the concepts and illustrations I shared during my one-hour presentation, saying they were hoping to find ways to apply these principles as they worked through the challenging issues they are facing in the new legislative term.

I opened my talk by referring to a report by Stanford sociologist Robb Willer who has studied the growing polarization in our political system. Among other things, he noted that “liberals and conservatives tend to self-segregate into ideological silos, consuming different news, associating only with like-minded others, choosing to live in different places” and dreading that their “child would marry a supporter of the other party.”

Noting that these tendencies are undergirded by a deep moral divide, Dr. Willer urges political leaders to make a greater effort to cultivate genuine empathy and respect for their opponents and learn to “reframe” their positions in terms of the values that are meaningful to others (click here for his outstanding TED talk, which had been viewed over two million times).

I also referred to recent studies that show that power can actually cause damage to the human brain. As an article in the Atlantic reported, “People under the influence of power act as if they have suffered a traumatic brain injury, becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s perspective.”

This damage seems to include an impairment of a neural process called “mirroring,” which is a cornerstone of empathy. This impairment causes many powerful people to do worse at reading the emotions and thoughts of others, which leads to an “empathy deficit” that undermines their personal and professional relationships, as well as their ability to lead others. (See a similar report here.)

Fortunately, these dynamics are not inevitable. During my talk to the Montana Legislature, I gave specific examples of how renowned leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan counteracted these tendencies by deliberately developing their capacity for empathy, discerning others’ values and showing respect for their opponents (see my blog posts on Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan).

I then explained how present day leaders could cultivate these same qualities by learning and practicing the basic principles of values-based relational wisdom.

  • You can download a two-page summary of values-based (secular) relational wisdom by clicking this link.
  • You can download a copy of the 13-page handout I gave our legislators by clicking this link.

Please join me in praying that these dedicated leaders will find many ways to put these concepts into practice in the coming days. And if you know of any city, state or federal legislators or civil servants in your community who might benefit from either our values-based materials or from our faith-based training, please feel free to share these resources with them.

~ Ken Sande

Reflection Questions

  • It’s easy to see some of these negative behaviors in others. Do you see any of them in yourself? (a lack of empathy, an inability to understand and respect the values of others, a tendency to frame issues according to your values, interests and desires, etc.)
  • If you’d like to improve your own capacity for empathy, download and study the free ebooklet, Seven Steps to Empathy.
  • Write down the names of a few political leaders you will pray for every day, asking God to help them to develop the relational qualities seen in leaders like Lincoln, Mandela, King and Reagan.
  • If you know of any political leaders who may benefit from this information, please forward it to them today.

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2019 Ken Sande

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