Back to each other beyond the polarization: ten tips

By Martin Thoolen,
Published at 23 August 2023.
Read in 9 minutes

A different world: more beautiful, more loving, friendlier. Because it looks like the world has become more grim. Within and between nations, in politics, in the media, in organizations or in the streets. “Framing”, “canceling”, polarization and radicalization are a daily occurrence. How can we make the world a better place? At work and in private? In large and small circles?

How did we get here?

It all comes down to our egos. We live and work in a world that has become crowded, and where safety can no longer be taken for granted. Secretly, beneath the surface, our fears and the need for power to create or preserve a safe space for ourselves controls us. We want to protect ourselves and be a person of consequence amid the hustle and bustle, and don't hesitate to use our elbows in the process. Why? Because every human being has a number of universal needs:

  • To be included
  • To be special or to add value
  • To experience approval and avoid disapproval
  • To experience recognition and appreciation
  • To feel love and attention

Before we know it we unconsciously become attached to ego-labels that we use to define our identity, which then fulfills the aforementioned desires. It is precisely those ego-labels that contribute to further polarization and radicalization.

Ego labels

Ego is the 'I' we use to identify ourselves, but it also sometimes unconsciously separates us from others. Before you know it you identify yourself as your profession, your income, your status, your football team, your country or your religion. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, until circumstances change, or you become so embroiled in your ego that you look upon others as wrong, or less worthy. For example, you're down in the dumps for an entire week when your team loses, you become depressed when your sports career ends or you have retired, or you are disillusioned with your faith when you see how some religious folks behave violently.

If you are connected to your ego-labels with all your heart and soul, the emotional pain and associated emotions, such as anger or sorrow are exponentially more intense or worse. That's when you start threatening the football coach who lost the game, or even menacingly show up on the politician's doorstep. You might even go so far as to issue death threats, like I recently experienced personally. In an article I wrote about “going on vacation”, I mentioned being unexpectedly woken up too early in the morning by a church bell tolling or a loud morning prayer emanating from a mosque, in the context of your own expectations poisoning your momentary wellbeing. Even though I often appreciate the quality and beauty of the Muslim prayer, I received a death threat from someone who misinterpreted my words. That is the danger of passionate ego-identifications that can lead to unnecessary aggression.

Just like some lawyers who are passionately attached to winning for their client and themselves and even consciously distort the truth to do so. And then speak ill of their counterpart if they speak the truth. Not truth, but self-interest then serve and unnecessarily polarize issues that are going on.

However, anyone who thinks evil, speaks evil, consciously distorts the truth or makes threats, is actually contributing to polarization instead of peace and truth. I therefore advocate, for example, that all negative emojis (such as angry icons) be removed from all social media and that personal attacks and threatening comments should ideally be filtered. Because online media, with their policies (perhaps unintentionally), contribute to transgressive behavior and thus feed negativity and separation instead of unity.

Collective ego-labels

There is a collective ego label as soon as a group of people identifies with the same identity. And there is nothing wrong with that in itself. In fact, together you can move mountains. It could be an organization you work for or a football team or for example a country or religion. However, as soon as you passionately identify with one group, then elevate yourself as being better than the other group, or exclude the other group, you are actually contributing to collective polarization and sowing the seeds of enmity and war with the other group.

Way back when, during my Psychology studies, my Professor Rabbi already pointed out the effect of us/them thinking. Even without the presence of a competitive element, people can clash. During an experiment it turned out that the mere division of participants into a blue and a red group was reason enough for people to develop enmity towards each other.

In public I sometimes notice that people from ones 'own group' are addressed as brother or sister, while this courtesy is sometimes not extended to 'others'. Once, during a conference, Nelson Mandela was critically questioned by an American investigative journalist who accused him of accepting financial aid for his anti-apartheid regime from Arafat and Gaddafi, who were considered enemies of the Western world. Mandela pointed out to him that his mind-set was wrong to think in terms of "friends" and "enemies" and that thinking like that is polarizing. When Mandela first went looking for financial aid, the 'friend' USA didn't answer, while the so-called 'enemies' were indeed willing to assist him. Friend and foe are therefore merely collective ego-labels in our own thinking that hinder the development of unity.

"Friend and foe are merely collective ego-labels in our own thinking that hinder the development of unity".

However, you cannot become friends with anyone who persists in labeling you as an enemy. But you can do a lot on your own to contribute to unity and not polarization and radicalization.

Making a kinder world: a solution with ten tips

What can you do yourself to contribute to unity? Whether it is with your country, organization, colleague, manager, customer, neighbor, family or a stranger. I assure you that if you apply these ten tips, your relationships will immediately improve and you will already contribute to a better world in small or large circles, depending on your social position and associated responsibility.

1. Do not think in terms of labels and judgments, but look at your fellow man neutrally

Change your mind set! Because a lot of behavior stems from your thinking in terms of labels. I was watching a comedy once, and when a child was born, someone didn't shout loudly: “It's a boy”, or “it's a girl!”, but: "It's a baby!"

Let go of all labels, such as: friend/foe; right/left, Christian/Jew/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist, LGBTQ, etc. And try to apply this more often: “It is a human being!”

With light from within, burn off the layers of ego labels from your own eyes and look at your fellow man in a new light.

With light from within, burn off the layers of ego labels from your own eyes and look at your fellow man in a new light.

2. Do not think and act hostile yourself when enmity comes your way

Because then you are doing the same thing, which actually reinforces the polarization. Just like when you're driving a car. You are the way you drive. If someone starts tailgating, let the aggression literally and figuratively pass you by. Stay kind.

"You are the way you drive.”

3. Forgive the other

Don't think in terms of right or wrong, because no one is always 100% right or wrong.

Can you look at what someone has done right and is still doing right? Or do you get stuck in what the other person did wrong? Like 'Once canceled, always canceled'; 'Once framed, always framed.' This doesn't do justice to anyone. Forgiveness is like balm to each other's souls.

“Forgiveness is like balm to each other's souls”.

4. Acknowledge your own mistakes and learn from them

If no one thinks and does 100% right, that also applies to you. How graceful it is when you are open about your own mistakes. And then learn from them. That makes you human, because ideally we should learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we have to make more mistakes, or more serious ones, in order to learn to grow into a sincere, true, talented and peaceful human being. If you don't learn your life lessons, you will just have to come back more often as a soul to learn in the temporary school of life. You are better off doing it now.

5. Give sincere compliments

Give each other sincere compliments without getting anything in return. Even treat strangers this way. As a founder of Voice Dialogue, Hal Stone told me during his international training in the USA that the 'inner critic' and 'inner judge' in people is nowhere as prevalent as in the Dutch. He and his wife Sidra drew that conclusion after they traveled the world for years with their ideas about the psychology of the different 'selves'. Being critical is okay, but not if it means that the positive towards yourself and each other is not forthcoming.

6. Be kind

Your tone of voiceyour choice of words, the way you look at the other immediately betray whether you approach others from a perspective of reservation, suspicion or hostility, or from a place of sincerity, open-mindedness and friendliness. Try to smile sincerely (not cynically) at another person. Even though you may not agree with the other person, try to do this more often and your work and private contacts will change instantly.

7. Stay curious

Even if the other person's opinion rubs you the wrong way, stay curious. Try to find out why the other person thinks differently from you. Agree to disagree.

8. Move towards each other and start a dialogue of your own

It may happen more quickly than you think: Don't look at the other person. Turn around and turn away from the other. Don't really look at the other person or don't look at them in a friendly way. Instead, don't look away, but turn to the other person and look at each other. Do not turn away, but go towards each other. Start a conversation with the person you were against. You can be pleasantly surprised and your judgments can disappear like snow in the sunshine in no time.

9. Listen to each other even if you disagree

You don't have to agree with each other. If you really show that you are listening to the other person, it often has a disarming effect. You gain more insight into why the other person thinks the way they do and you may gain more understanding. Watch what happens to yourself when you notice that someone else really takes you seriously and really listens to you. So extend the same courtesy to the other. But don't assume that the other person will reciprocate. Sometimes others need more time to let your words sink in and they can't really listen to you (for a while).

10. Help each other

A sincere and loving helping hand is often well received. If not, the other person isn't ready, but don't take it personally because it's not about you. But usually when you show good will it improves the relationship with the other person.

And now in practice

You are responsible for how you think about the other person, and how you behave and express to the other person. Even if the other person seems to give rise to anger, sadness or whatever, you always remain responsible for your own behavior and thoughts.

What do you think? What are you doing yourself? Every day, every minute with regard to your fellow human being? Living together becomes so much more fun and enjoyable if you apply these ten tips. Give it a try and decide afterwards whether it worked.

1. Do not think in terms of labels and judgments, but look at your fellow man neutrally

2. Do not think and act hostile yourself when enmity comes your way

3.        Forgive the other

4. Acknowledge your own mistakes and learn from them

5. Give sincere compliments

6. Be kind

7. Stay curious

8. Move towards each other and start a dialogue of your own

9. Listen to each other even if you disagree

10. Help each other

Does this article appeal to you and do you want more people to live better together? It would be nice if you share it.

After all, all your life you have a choice to feed the positive or the negative. The choice is yours. As the following story, that I saw while traveling on an Indian reservation in Kamloops, BC in Canada, shows.

The shuswap legend of two wolves

One night, a grandfather from the Secwepemc tribe teaches his grandson about life. A battle is going on inside me, he tells the boy. It is a terrible fight between two wolves.

One is bad. He is anger, jealousy, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.

The other is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, tranquility, benevolence, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, gentleness, truth, compassion and trust.

The same fight is going on in you. And in everyone.

The grandson thought about it for a moment and asked his Grandfather, "But which wolf will win?" The Grandparent simply replied, "The one you feed."

© 2023: Martin Thoolen

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Martin Thoolen

My 30 years of professional experience as an awareness coach, clinical and organisational psychologist has enabled me to help thousands of clients in Personal or Collective Leadership. Both groups and individuals, in coaching sessions, training courses, leadership development and organisation development programs, retreats and seminars.
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