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How do we discuss divisive issue around the dinner table?

The new administration has been sworn in, new day, new life, new policies, new hopes. Conversations are going to happen around dinner tables; unavoidably some difficult conversations are prone to happen and there are many divisive subjects that can erupt

- The elections

- Wearing masks or not

- Is COVID real or a hoax

- Get vaccinated or not

- Send children to school or learn at home

- Close or open businesses

And the list goes on.

So, the question that I have been asked multiple times is: Do we talk about divisive issues not?

This is not a simple Yes or No answer. The answer really relies on our Emotional Intelligence and the level of our self-awareness.

There is a need to remember that any of these issues can lead to harsh words and expressions that can break relationships sometimes forever.

Also, it is plausible for example that we could have voted for the same President and still disagree on some of the policies or vice versa

The divisiveness comes from the fact that we all have set of values sometimes non-negotiables that mean so much to us, when discussing them it touches who we are at the core, inflaming raw nerves that is why we flare up but remembering that and being aware of it (Emotional Intelligence) can help minimize those effects.

We have known most of the people at that dinner table throughout our lives, these are mostly people that are family members or close friends, you shared good and bad times with them.

Try to think for a second what did drastically change to make them the devil all of a sudden; “Biden happened” or “Trump happened” is not an answer

I have been thinking really hard about what we are all going through, I always go through my pros and cons list, I found myself asking “Who am I to think” that I am a 100% right, that no one got it right but me. I do have an opinion and I have my values, I honor them, I stand in my truth and own it, but who I am to demonize you or demonize anyone’s opinion because it is a different one.

I am a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional; I stand for inclusion so if I exclude someone’s opinion that is different, then I am a hypocrite.

Before we can answer the question, we need to ask our self these questions that are all based on our level of self-awareness (Emotional Intelligence at its best here)

- Are we good at drawing boundaries?

- Are we able to handle volatile hard emotions?

- Are we able to handle the challenge of our own opinions?

- Are we able to take push back on our own feelings and ideas?

- Are we able to take pressure?

- Are we able to take it when someone tells us” No you are wrong” or push our hot buttons?

If the answer is "NO" to any of these questions then the safest (not best) way to handle that is just to establish House “Rules of Engagements” NOW and ban political and religious discussions at the dinner table.

if we can handle the “Agree to disagree” part, then we can visit the idea, not a simple idea but doable. As long as respect is at the base of the discussions

Respect for:

  • The person we are talking to

  • The household we are in

  • The different opinion

  • The emotions and feelings of the other person

  • The relationships we have

  • Our self

It took me years of working on myself and my Emotional Intelligence to get here and it is not perfect yet, when I get triggered and heated I have the power and choice to disengage right there and then.

In reality, we can have all these rules and emotional capacity to discuss controversial issues and still have our trigger hot buttons activated and fly of the handle.

So, let me share in a scientific way why this happens, and when we understand the roots of the issues, we can have solutions

When we are triggered and our hot buttons are pushed, we have changes that occur

  1. Physiological

  2. Emotional

  3. Mental

If we are self-aware of these changes, we can choose to switch the channel before it flares up

For example, when I get angry, I feel myself getting tense, my muscles getting tight, my blood pressure rising, my heartbeat increasing, may be sweating, knots in my stomach, clinching my fists.

All these are physiological signs that I get when I am triggered and get angry (Emotion)- I still have a chance and a choice to disengage either by walking away or by exercising deep breathing for few times or distracting my brain by switching the conversation or even remembering the lyrics to a song that I like (Mentally)

This takes work, that we need to do, not only for these situations but to practice in our lives in general.

More neuroscience explanation, in a quite simple way – our brain consists of 3 layers that are:

  • Reptilian or physical or our main survival mechanism

  • Mammalian or emotional where we host our empathy and other feelings

  • Neo Cortex that is present only in human beings and evolved itself to existence to give us the power of logical and analytical thinking

The interesting part is that the three layers (physical, emotional, and logical) do not necessarily work together but each look for dominance and act against each other- that is why sometimes we say “My heart is telling me to do this, but my brain says no

Our brain has been created to defend us from any danger either real or perceived and is also an efficiency tool that tries its best to conserve calories, it doesn’t take much time, to analyze our outside world for survival purposes, so we create what we call “Social categorization” where we box people based on certain criteria that we have embedded in our brain and mind in certain categories. Our perceptions most o the time are not correct.

Our brain never changed since the caveman mentality, kill, or be killed, we still live in survival mode - Fight, flight, or freeze

Everything we go through, passes through the base or reptilian base first, if our brain senses danger – in this case someone disagreeing with us and we feel threatened- our survival kicks in, our brain is flooded with Cortisol, the stress hormone and we go into fight or flight or even freeze mode we call that “Amygdala highjack” where all of the brain resources are hijacked to survive

When someone disagrees with us, we take it as a rejection, brings us back to feelings and emotions of our own 7-year-old, and we feel in danger. The disagreeing person becomes an “out group” person and our Unconscious Bias kicks in with vengeance and we go in survival mode and a vicious circle starts

When the brain lacks data and doesn’t have answers it gets anxious and can’t live in chaos so it fills the gap either right or wrong it doesn’t matter as long as it creates an illusion of order, our brain can’t live in chaos that is why we always look for answers and it is uncomfortable – from the beginning of time, men has been filling the void with mythologies, philosophies, and religions

We form our opinions based on what we value, what we deem right or wrong, what we deem good or bad based on values and beliefs mainly that were downloaded in our brain through our childhood from our parents, teachers and family.

If they had blind spots, we inherit them, if we are not aware of them, they become our triggers for the rest of our lives eve when we are not aware of them.

What pushes the boundaries especially talking about the elections is that people use broad spectrum expressions like

- All those that voted for Biden are…….

- All those that voted for Trump are……

- You are stupid or you are ignorant, or you are out of touch

- How can anyone even start thinking that way

- You are racist/ hater/ intolerant/ fascist

- You are a left winger/ a snowflake/ a liberal

These are the most common ones that come to my mind, what is ironic is that the other side is looking at us the same way labeling us as well

Lately, I had conversations with many from across the aisle, I found out that for example we agreed on the same California propositions responses in the elections, though we voted for different candidates

Some took their emotions out of the equation, and voted for policies versus character or personality, they are aware of the controversies but still choose policies front and center

The real truth lies in that people are pushed - on purpose - to be in fear and stay in it, so fear is created around:

  • They are going to lose their jobs to people of color

  • Their children will lose their place in college to a person of color

  • Their neighborhood will go down if people of color will move in

  • The police departments will be defunded

  • Businesses will close forever, and they will lose their income

On the other side – the fear lies

  • If you are a person of color you will be persecuted and discriminated against

  • You will be mistreated or killed by the police if you are a person of color

  • You are being marginalized

  • Businesses will close forever, and they will lose their income

  • They will have no medical insurance

  • Their will lose their social security

We stay in survival mode with cortisol flooding our brain, inhibiting the good hormones like serotonin, so we stay in fear and depression as a result we see people with guns in the streets as the caveman mentality kicks back in – kill or be killed.

Everyone fears that the world as they know it, will cease to exist no matter what shape that is/ was, they are thrown out of their comfort zone into chaos and anxiety

The media feeds on that and makes it worst as it depends on sensationalism

So, what do we do?