11/01/2012 02:26 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Political Insults May Be Affecting Your Behavior and What You Can Do About It


No, you are not imagining it. Political insults are getting increasingly personal, widespread and intense -- not just between candidates and their surrogates but amongst almost all of us, at this point. Some friendships are shattering. Reputations smeared. Even formerly apolitical individuals are getting pulled into mudslinging. To protect yourself and connect rather than conflict in more situations, it's worth understanding two underlying and sometimes opposing instincts that are adding to this rising tide of verbal vitriol.

First, the "fight or flight" brain wiring that enables you to survive also causes you to react sooner, longer and more intensely to what you dislike or fear than to what you like or desire. Suppose, for example, upon first meeting someone you were impressed by their thoughtful questions about your favorite pastime, then they offered to introduce you to a helpful contact and evoked three other powerfully positive "yes" triggers. Yet if that person made just one disdainful reference to someone you admired, that hot negative trigger would quickly rise to the top of your mind. In all probability you would neither like nor trust that person.

Beware that, as some of your friends or family members make a disparaging comment about the candidate you favor, you don't spiral up into counter-insults about their candidate, thus further poisoning the well of your relationship. Here's a hint for having a candid conversation. Ask if they would like to discuss your differences and, if so, to agree to avoid emotion-laden words, a very difficult thing to do. Ironically, we are more likely to use specific, emotional language when talking about what we don't like than what we do.

Another effect that is heating up political conversations is the rule of behavioral contagion to the third degree. From how much we eat to whom we hate, we are instinctively imitative creatures to a startling extent. Not only do those who know you emulate your behavior (and vice versa) but their friends do, as well. In fact, according to the co-authors of Connected, we are influenced by the behavior of our friends' friends' friends -- people we do not even know. Sweeping our country right now is a wild contagion of charge and counter-charges about who should be president and the kind of person you must be if you do not agree with me. Then there are the crowds of people who are angry about the angry discourse. Contagion multiplied.

So, in sharp contrast to this contagion of hostility, let's talk about ways to make friends more easily because, research shows, friendship is especially cherished during volatile, hostile times.

"The best time to make friends is before you need them." -- Ethel Barrymore

Here are six ways to pull others closer to you:

1. Act as if they meant well, especially if they didn't

I met my high school boyfriend when I was upset and swung open my locker door so fast I banged him on the head as he was leaning into his locker. Not everyone can take such a first encounter in stride, let alone retort with a grin, "If this is how you treat strangers how do handle enemies?" This unflappable humor made us instant friends and helps in his work now as an ER doctor.

When someone is snide or otherwise rude, thoughtless or difficult in front of others, rather than acting affronted, interpret their words or actions as if they meant well. That way that person has the opportunity to self-correct and save face rather than feel cornered by your correcting him so he escalates his negative behavior.

I met one of my closest girlfriends at a fundraiser dinner when a major donor at our table made a snide comment to us about a plain and shy looking woman at the adjacent table. My soon-to-be-friend responded warmly to him, acting as if he meant his insult as a compliment about that lady. In so doing she warmed us up towards her and deflected him from continuing that line of "humor."

Use self-deprecating humor that highlights an admirable trait in her -- especially one that matters to her, at the expense of your own related trait. In so doing she flourishes around you. When others like how they feel when around you they will like you.

2. Literally get closer

College students living in the center of dorms tend to have more friends than those at the end of the halls. Those in center offices have more relationships with colleagues than those who work in the corners of buildings. Those who sit side-by-side in just one meeting will feel more comfortable with each other later than with others in the meeting yet will not usually know why. Rom and Ori Brafman discussed this Proximity Effect in Click. When you want to get to know someone, find a way to sit or stand next to them in some situation -- the more times the better.

"Probably no man ever had a friend that he did not dislike a little." -- E.W. Howe

3. Know that people like people who are like them... or appear to be

While it's obvious that people like people who are like them, the extent of this so-called Similarity Effect is considerably deeper than I would have thought. For example, in a study cited in Click, if a woman asked me for a donation, she would have double the chance of getting me to give if she was wearing a name-tag with my name on it. That's why bonding happens when people first meet and ask those innocuous yet safe questions about where they live, work, went to school or grew up. Once you find a shared past or interest, explore it further and then take side roads into other interests. I'm drawn, for example, to other avid readers.

As well, mirror the movements and voice rate and pitch of the other person to some degree, a familiar trait to many called mirroring. Just as smiling evokes a smile in others and makes you both feel better, mirroring gets you in sync with others, thus increasing mutual ease. Ironically, just as we are blind to some aspects of what is in front of us, as the gorilla study famously demonstrated, we rarely notice someone mirroring us, even if we know of this technique. Just be sure when around more than one person that you are mirroring a well-liked person.

4. Recognize that people like people who like them

To get along, when you first meet others it is most important that they like the way they are when around you. Then they are more likely to like you. First discover what they most like about themselves, and ask questions to elicit their views on those traits and related topics so you can genuinely find a common threat of belief or interest to which you can speak. That's relationship glue-building. If you start to get irritated about something don't focus on the feeling. Instead immediately turn your attention to one of that person's traits you admire.

Here's a double benefit for you to practice this. Your capacity to befriend those who are not like you enables you to:

A. Lead a more adventuresome and satisfying life, naturally pulling in more camaraderie, caring and opportunities, as people desire to help you as an extension of their best side that you brought out.

B. You will be able to express more facets of your temperament and use your talents in more varied ways.

"Friends are relatives you make for yourself." -- Eustache Deschamps

5. Know the upside and downside of being a high self-monitor

Those who make friends most easily are what psychologist Mark Snyder has dubbed "high self-monitors." The Brafmans call them social chameleons. When done consciously, followers of NLP call this mirroring and matching. Without effort or an attempt to manipulate, chameleons instinctively bring out the facet of their personality that is most like the person they are with.

As Rita Carter suggests in Multiplicity, we have many people inside of us. Some people bring out our worst sides and we dislike them for that effect.

"Without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes

These chameleons bring out the best side in many kinds of people. Sometimes that makes them adept instigators of projects, or facilitators of teams with diverse personalities. They may become the glue that sticks the group together. See how much of a self-monitor you are.

The downside, for high self-monitors, in attempting to deepen friendships. is that they don't show how they really feel but rather what they think others want to see. As with any strength there's a flip side. The good news is that, in understanding both the strength and the disadvantage of such chameleon behavior, we recognize the value of it in the beginning to create the familiarity that builds initial trust.

"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive." -- Anäis Nin

6. Benefit from befriending those who don't act like you

I love to design and arrange furniture and glass lighting yet have difficulty with even minor computer problems. One of my dearest friends is a gadget geek who helps me with computer fixes and advises me on when to buy the shiny new thing. And I thoroughly enjoyed creating Danish/Italian-style sofas, chairs and a dining table for the home he just bought.

Those who are keenly aware of their talents are more likely to see the benefits in befriending individuals with different ones because such relationships enable them to accomplish greater things for each other -- or together. This is the Complementarity Effect. Sure, we can find most anything online yet no one can be an expert at everything. Having friends who have different talents and interests makes life easier and much more enjoyable.

"If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself alone. A man should keep his friendships in constant repair." -- Samuel Johnson

We have to go out of our way to keep such friendships strong because we have different top interests and ways of thinking, talking or doing things. Yet research shows that we tend to take for granted that which comes easily to us and to value that which we work at maintaining. Here's to cultivating and keeping ever-deepening relationships to savor life together.

"It takes a long time to grow an old friendship." -- John Leonard