Updated: Nov 22, 2020
One of the women I mentor called me recently with a personal problem. She was about to spend a week with her husband’s family and one of them is a Trump-supporting conservative. She is a liberal, never-Trumper. Needless to say, getting together in the past has been uncomfortable and, as she said, “I am just praying we don’t get into a lot of fights. I have promised myself that I will walk away when the conversation turns to politics.”
It seemed like this could be a very long and unpleasant week. I reminded her that one of the keys to having a rational conversation with someone whom you don’t agree with is keeping it calm, so your brain’s executive functioning (self-control and rational decision making) stay online, and so the limbic system does not swoop in for its infamous and crazy-making amygdala highjack. When the amygdala takes over, which it does in a split second, our brains revert to automatic, defensive behavior that can seem irrational and overly emotional.
The way you know you have had an amygdala hijack is when you look back at a situation and think to yourself, “I wish I hadn’t said that” or “I don’t know why I thought that would be a good idea” or “I wish instead of freezing/fighting, I could have done…”
That is a simplified explanation of an amygdala hijack. The idea here is that you will be more effective at communicating your point and even influencing someone else to see your position, if you have the conversation from a calm place.
One of the tools I talk about in my book, "Communicating During a Crisis," is relating to people. This seems like a simple thing, but it is not easy to do. When I reminded my friend about trying to relate to her relatative, she blurted out, “How am I supposed to relate to someone I have NOTHING in common with?!”
I told her that it was time for us to play the “What If?” game when it comes to relating to other people. Following is how it works:
What if… Donald Trump were a Democratic president and everything he did was to the benefits of those who are liberal? Now, answer all of the following questions.
What if the people protesting in Portland for two months this summer were white supremacists and a liberal president called in Homeland Security to shut it down? Would you still be upset and think it was wrong?
What if it was a liberal president who stacked the Supreme Court during an election year? Let’s say the Republicans were the ones who had backed down four years ago and were saying, “Hey, this isn’t fair. We stood down in 2016 when we had an opening on the Supreme Court and now you need to do the same.” Would you be upset and think it was wrong or would you celebrate that the court will lean liberal for the rest of your lifetime?
What if the last four years had been a liberal president who slammed racists, gun owners and environmental polluters on social media and said they were bad people who should be jailed? Would you be upset and think it was wrong or would you re-Tweet it?
What if a liberal president was shaming people for not wearing masks and making fun of them and calling them names? Would you be upset and think it was wrong or would laugh along and share it on your socials?
When I was done with the “What If?” game, my mentee was silent for a moment. She then quietly responded, “That certainly gives me a different view of things.”
We do not agree with everyone. Understanding another person’s point of view, relating to them, and then presenting them with the facts of your position allows for a more open dialogue and an opportunity for real change, because it keeps the brain rooted in executive functioning and allows the amygdala to sit out the discussion. The amygdala is helpful when we are about to get hit by a truck, but it can wreack havoc with political discourse.
Dr. Joanna Dodd Massey is a communications consultant, corporate speaker and trainer, as well as the author of two books. The focus on her work is the intersection of neuroscience and leadership to help companies attain better business outcomes. When employees are willing to work it, the net results are higher productivity and higher revenues.