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Lisa Earle McLeod

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Polarizing Politics: The Problem Is In Our Heads (the very worst place it could be)

Posted: 01/19/10 07:49 PM ET

We're all familiar with polarizing politics: Splitting complex issues into polar opposite views so that we, the attention-deficit disordered American public, can sleep securely in the knowledge that our side is right; therefore, the other side must be wrong, wrong, wrong.

But the black and white thinking that can be so frustrating in the political arena is really just an exaggerated version of an all-too-human tendency that shows up in many areas. It's an either/or think mind-set, and unfortunately it's the primary default switch of the human brain.

We might think that the problems we see in politics are different from the conflicts we encounter at work or at home. But we take the same brain everywhere we go.

The human inclination toward either/or thinking shows up in relationships where couples argue over everything from sex and communication to the best way to load a dishwasher, each convinced that their "truth" is the best path toward true love and an organized home.

It stymies education, where literal thinkers and conceptual thinkers argue over the best way to teach kids.

As a business consultant, I can't tell you how many hours I've spent refereeing turf wars where previously calm, well-suited professionals are practically going for each others' throats across a conference table.

The finance department wants to cut costs because they know that reducing expenses will improve profitability. Meanwhile, the sales team has hard evidence that spending money on marketing will beef up the bottom line.

Both sides are convinced they are sole owners of the truth, and anyone who suggests otherwise is misinformed at best, or at worst, downright evil.

The human mind is an incredibly complex machine, yet one of the functions it performs best is to put things into simple categories. It's the way we make sense of the world.

But the either/or thinking that helped us survive when problems were as simple as, "Are these berries yummy or poison?" doesn't serve us so well now that the world is more complex.

So how do we get smarter?

Whenever I bring up the subject of either/or thinking, I usually get nodding heads from all the people who are frustrated because their spouse, neighbor, boss or political foe refuses to see reason.

How, pray tell, do we get the narrow-minded one to rise above their oh, so simplistic, reactive thought patterns?

I hate to break it to you, but as frustrating as either/or thinking may be in others, when we start judging their narrow-mindedness, we often succumb to the same thought pattern ourselves.

The minute we start telling ourselves that the unenlightened one is oh, so very wrong, our brain then proceeds to belittle and discount their every word and action. We move them from the nice category to the naughty category faster than you can say, "The toilet paper roll goes on the front, you moron."

Can you guess where I'm going with this?

Heavy sigh, the only way to get other people to elevate their thinking is to elevate our own.

That means listening to them without judgment and trying to understand where they're really coming from. It means being willing to hear their "truth" rather than just defending your own.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

Being mature is tough work. But why should we expect the politicians to do it, if we're not willing to give it a try?

Come on people, we're not going to change them until we change us.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, syndicated columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. Her newest book The Triangle of Truth, has been called "How smart people can get better at everything."

 
 
 

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