Putting The United Back Into The United States: Author Karen Tibbals On The 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society
Prepare: If you are stressed, go into an encounter by doing whatever you can to de-stress. Get enough sleep, eat nutritious foods, meditate, or pray or whatever you do to help calm down. And prepare by learning what you can about the person you are disagreeing with. Don’t read the news obsessively, it will make you more stressed. Do read about what makes people different, read about potential solutions. You’ll need that information later.
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Tibbals.
Karen is an author and public speaker whose mission is to help other people bridge the cultural and political divide. She developed an expertise is human behavior during her long-time career in marketing. Karen left that career to go to seminary, intending to start an organization to support businesspeople in her faith community. After she discovered that wasn’t a good fit for her, she decided to help people in a different way — by taking her understanding of human motivation to a broader audience. Her most recent book, Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility Across the Political Divide, teaches people how to apply the latest social science research in their own lives so that they can understand each other better and talk to the other side more productively. She is also writing a newsletter which accesses information from a variety of experts on how we can mend our fractured relationships.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was a shy, self-conscious child, the oldest of three girls. My dad loved all kids but especially loved his kids and encouraged us to stretch. He pushed me to talk to people even though I was shy. I remember him making me get out of the car and ask for directions, even though I resisted it strongly. Even though he was born early in the 20th century, he still supported the idea that women could do great things. My youngest sister and I were the first women in our extended family to go to college and we both went on to masters’ degree level programs, because of his encouragement.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Well, I have had several careers. My shift to a career in the pharmaceutical industry was inspired by the thought that I could really help people. I interviewed for a job that supported a cancer product and I had visions of saving people’s lives. It turns out even though I got a job with the company, I didn’t work on a cancer product until a long time later. But I like to feel that I have had a positive impact on society through the work that I did.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am working on a newsletter that summarizes what various experts say about how to help people come together. I draw from experts in various different fields, not just psychiatry and psychology, but also hostage negotiators, historians, political scientists, religious leaders, conflict resolution specialists, anthropologists and so on. I call the newsletter Mending Fractured Relationships.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had a number of really good bosses in my career who encouraged me in many ways. People don’t realize that many people in corporate America are kind caring people who do a lot to help develop employees’ skills. But a more recent story that most comes to mind is when I was in seminary, my thesis advisor called me a “philosopher”. I never realized that was what I was doing, but that is what I do. I work hard to understand why things happen and then explain them to people.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
In one of my assignments in corporate America, I was working with a colleague who consistently behaved badly towards a person from another company. It started to create problems for the alliance between the two companies. I knew I needed to do something, but, because I don’t like confrontation, I delayed for a long time. I spent a lot of time asking people’s advice. I wanted someone else to solve the problem for me. I asked both my boss and her boss to talk to the person who had created the problem, but they all told me I had to do it myself. Finally, I made an appointment with her, told her what I had observed and the problems it was causing. It was like magic! She said she didn’t realize the problem and said she would apologize! The lessons I learned were don’t put off confronting conflict, it doesn’t get any easier, and don’t expect others to solve your problems for you. This is a crucial lesson because the problems in our society aren’t going to go away if we don’t confront them. We each need to take a part, one conversation at a time.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature had a significant impact on me. I loved how he summarized what has happened to violence over the centuries and identified the factors that contributed to that. That method matches the way I use evidence to come to conclusions. I also loved that it was contrary to common wisdom and that it was based on data, not just opinion. Moreover, it was there I discovered Moral Foundations Theory, which set me on the path that I am on.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
A quote that I use often is: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all,” by Helen Keller. I have a tendency to hide and be very private. Becoming public feels risky to me because I am afraid of conflict and I know people are going to disagree with me. This quote is one of the tools I used to get over the fears, to remind myself that unless I take the risk I won’t be able to achieve my goal. My life has certainly gotten a lot more interesting since I started on this path.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader does and says what is right for his organization and for his followers, not what is right for him. I’ve known several leaders who have recommended actions that stripped themselves of power or influence because they believed it was the right thing to do. But leaders also need to pay attention to the needs of their followers. The really difficult situations where true leadership is needed are when there is a conflict between the organization’s needs and the followers’ needs. In that case, leaders need to do what they can for all parties. However, if they can’t do what is best for their followers, at the very least, the leader needs to take the followers’ needs into account and talk to them in a way that takes into account their concerns and their values.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I would say that there are two underlying societal factors that have contributed to it, which created a powder keg just waiting burn. The powder key was lit by a match from Donald Trump.
The two social factors creating this powder keg are social sorting and social media. By social sorting, I mean that people used to routinely encounter people who weren’t like them. The stereotypes of the boss marrying the secretary and the boss living next to the factory in the small town and sending their kids to the town school were not wrong. Back then people got to know people who weren’t like themselves and had to get along with them. But now, the factories have been bought up by major corporations and the big boss is no longer the owner, and the headquarters is based in a big city. People are more likely to marry people they went to college with, not the secretary. People are freer to move to live near people just like themselves now. And people who don’t want to move, don’t. One key indicator of how liberal or conservative a person is how far they live from where they were born. Those who live within 50 miles of their birth are more likely to be conservative. Conversely, the cities have become very liberal, as liberals move there to be with people like themselves.
The second factor, social media, has also made it so that we don’t need to talk to our neighbors, we can talk to people just like us online, so we are less likely to encounter someone who has attitudes that are different than ours.
This situation was ready for a match, like one provided by President Trump, to ignite it and make it explode. Because we already had the factors of social sorting and social media, we had lost the skills of how to get along with others who weren’t like us and were more likely to buy into what he said. When Trump called people with different ideas the enemy, that triggered the explosion.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
Our homeowner’s association has had a long-standing policy of restricting signs including political signs. One homeowner was so enthusiastically partisan that he put up a banner promoting his candidate that violated those rules. This promoted a long-drawn-out discussion at our association meeting, where it was finally decided to pay a lawyer to revise the by-laws to loosen the rules to allow political signs but put limits on it. Luckily, the person complied. People were fed up at the end.
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
On my last ever visit to my elderly aunt, I called her rude, and walked out. She had gone into a rant against immigrants, even though her immigrant caregiver was sitting in the same room with us. I never spoke to her again. I didn’t call her and she didn’t call me. She died eighteen months later. I wish I had had the tools in my book, because then I would have been able to talk to her in a such a way that she might have been able to listen to me differently. Instead of focusing on what was offensive to me, I wish I had recognized that underneath her rant was a love of her country. If I had seen that I could have named it and agreed with it. After all, I love our country too. Then, once we agreed, I could have used the tool of reframing to communicate some of my views but use her values to make it easier for her to agree with. For example, I could have asked her if immigrants like her caregiver who work hard should be allowed to come into our country. I think she probably would have agreed with that. But even if she didn’t, I wouldn’t have stormed out and would have been able to continue the conversation. By being in relationship with each other, we have an opportunity to change each other. When we cut off contact, we lose that opportunity.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
My sister got into a heated discussion with an employee of hers who had a different political view. They had had a good relationship before that. My sister “solved” it by setting a boundary that their conversations would only be about old movies in the future. She can do that, she’s the boss. But what I suggested when I wrote about this situation in my newsletter is to use an episode like this as an opportunity to start a conversation about media literacy. Especially if the person is a knowledge worker, employees need to know how to evaluate the information they take in, and media is just one source. Then you can apply my five-step model of preparation, asking questions, listening, affirming and reframing that I talk about in my newsletter, by making the questions about media literacy.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this? We need to get to know other people so we can recognize that people are multifaceted and not one-dimensional. Look for the other parts in people’s lives especially people you disagree with. I have had political discussions with one particular neighbor, but I also know her husband has cancer, she has a disabled daughter, and she has worked with me on a project. I see how afraid she is of change. She is real person. The more you can get to know a variety of people in real life, the less we will be tempted to see them as one-dimensional.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us? We need to rebuild our relationships in real life so that social media doesn’t dominate what we know about people. We need to stop seeing the “other side” as the enemy. They are all Americans. Most of them are warm, caring people who contribute to world. Look for the good in everyone. Participate in community efforts to make the neighborhood or town or city you live in a better place. Get to know your neighbors and contribute yourself.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
Volunteer in your community to help make your little piece of the world a better place. Use this as an opportunity to get to know a variety of people, especially ones you might disagree with. Talk to them about their lives and try to understand what events shaped them.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
I found a suggestion for healing our nation that came from two different sources, anthropologist Joseph Henrich, and historian/author Anne Applebaum. They both have separately identified working towards a common objective is a way to bind a society together after conflict. Henrich has cited examples of how it worked in indigenous societies and Anne Applebaum has identified it as recommended by peace advocates and seen in her experience in Eastern Europe. I’ve also seen the effect of that in my personal life. I know the discussion I got into with a neighbor right after the election was less heated because I had already worked with her on a joint project. We already had had a shared experience. Henrich further suggests that a ritual with shared movements and music is particularly powerful. The choreographed dance of the witches that a few of my neighbors did for Halloween 2019 probably helped bind them together.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Prepare: If you are stressed, go into an encounter by doing whatever you can to de-stress. Get enough sleep, eat nutritious foods, meditate, or pray or whatever you do to help calm down. And prepare by learning what you can about the person you are disagreeing with. Don’t read the news obsessively, it will make you more stressed. Do read about what makes people different, read about potential solutions. You’ll need that information later.
- Ask questions: Too often, we make assumptions about what is driving the other side. But often those assumptions aren’t true. Or if they contain a grain of truth, they are exaggerated. After all, the news focuses on the extreme examples, because most people aren’t news. The saying about assuming — that it makes an “ass” out of you and me — has some truth to it. When you ask the right kind of questions, you are opening up the conversations on a very different note. There are many types of questions you can ask that can help, but an all-purpose good opening question is: “I really want to understand what you think. Can you explain your ideas to me?”
- Listen: It doesn’t help to ask questions if you don’t listen. Too often we aren’t actually listening, but instead preparing our arguments. Listening is hard. It isn’t about a technique; it is about being truly willing to slow down. Hemingway had it right when he said: “When people talk, listen completely.” The retired British hostage negotiator, Richard Mullender, says that a good listener needs to look for facts, emotions, and values. But unless you have done your preparation, you may not recognize the values.
- Affirm: We are so used to trying to poke holes in people’s arguments and defending our own, that it is hard for us to step back and figure what we agree with people on. But if you can affirm at least something about what the person said, you will change the conversation. The other person will relax and they become more able to hear what you have to say. But more than that, you might also change yourself.
- Reframe: Here we come to the key step where you apply the preparation in the first step. Once you understand the values that the person holds from listening and from doing your preparation, then you can put that into action. You need to use a value that is important to the other person and tie to the issue you care about. Research shows that using this technique will make it more likely that people will listen and pay attention and, at least sometimes, change their mind. On the other hand, using our own values instead, like we usually do, makes it more likely that they will resist.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’? I know it sounds too simple to say apply the Golden Rule but it’s true. There’s a reason why just about every religion has some version of the Golden Rule, which is: “Do unto others as you would wish they would do unto you.” What’s even harder is the newly named Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would wish it to be done.” You may not want to do it because it sounds like you lose when you do that. What actually happens is that it helps you in the long run. The concept of karma encapsulates this, that helping others actually pays off in the long run for the helper. This has been validated in academic research, which Adam Grant talks about in his book, Givers and Takers.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I have hope that we can learn to talk to each other in a new way that can help us to solve our issues. As I have been giving virtual talks around the country, I keep running into people who are hungry to learn how to bridge the divide and who want to find a way to make it happen. And I run into others who have similar missions, so there are a lot of people who have a lot of ideas on how we can solve this. Plus, your project to bring attention to these types of efforts gives me hope.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
They can make the world a better place, one community at a time. That’s where their power is. We all need to belong and belonging in person is more powerful than online. Substituting online interaction for in person contact has led to poorer mental health and an increase in suicide. But no community will be perfect, we have to be willing to work at it, be open to differences, to work through conflicts and be forgiving.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-) :-)
I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Melinda Gates. I love the work the Gates Foundation is doing but I think they could garner a lot more support or that work if they learned more about how to talk across the cultural divide. One example is the COVID-19 vaccines. People in the US on the right are less likely to be concerned about the disease and less likely to get the vaccine. But if you applied the techniques in my book and my newsletter, I think you could convince some of the vaccine resistors.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!