Negotiation Skills: Reducing Political Polarization

The United States and many other nations feel hopelessly divided along political lines. Negotiation expert Daniel L. Shapiro offers advice on how we can begin to bridge our differences.

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political polarization

Excerpted from the June issue of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter, a publication of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

In our era of political polarization, collaboration and compromise can seem like impossible goals within our governments and our own communities. In his book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts (Viking, 2016), Daniel L. Shapiro, Harvard International Negotiation Program founder and director, describes how we can start to move beyond our divisions.

Negotiation Briefings: The United States feels extremely politically divided, even during the Covid-19 pandemic. What do you view as the most pressing contributor to this chasm?

Daniel L. Shapiro: As a psychologist, I view the roots of this divide through the lens of identity. With the rise of the internet and international institutions, globalization helped to interconnect all of us technologically, economically, socially, and politically. But globalization also alienated many people whose concerns lay not just with being a “global citizen” but with having their local needs satisfied. Humans crave connection, but we also desire differentiation. Globalization has endangered many people’s sense of identity, prompting them to retreat to the perceived security of tribes—groups to which they feel a kinlike connection based on ethnic, class, or cultural ties. Tribes, like family, bring us a wonderful sense of belonging and security. But when our tribe falls under threat—as many groups around the world now feel—we enter an us vs. them mindset that I call the tribes effect: We view politics as wholly adversarial, adopt a self-righteous attitude, and close ourselves off to learning the other side’s perspective.

Negotiation Briefings: How can we overcome a tribal mindset?

Daniel L. Shapiro: Through what I call a civic mindset—that is, by defining ourselves as part of a collective citizenry. Whereas the tribal mindset is adversarial, the civic mindset is cooperative: Citizens can fight for their political beliefs but cooperate where their interests overlap with those of other political parties. If the tribal mindset is self-righteous, the civic mindset is pluralistic: Citizens accept that there are multiple perspectives on the truth. And if the tribal mindset is insular, the civic mindset is community-spirited: We all have an obligation to help our communities thrive. By fostering civic-minded conversations, we can produce less polarization and more unity.

Negotiation Briefings: How do we do that when our leaders openly mock each other and the very idea of collaboration?

Daniel L. Shapiro: If a politician frustrates you, use that feeling as motivation to create political change. But don’t let your political identity eclipse possibilities for reaching across the divides. A number of organizations are working to engage local and national leaders in dialogue on how to better collaborate to meet the electorates’ shared interests and reduce political divisions. We need to break the taboo that talking across the political aisle is equal to treason.

At the local level, find someone who has differing political views than you and discuss areas of shared interest. Is there something small you can do together to make a positive change, such as working for improvements to the local high school? You strengthen the political fabric of the country through that process.

I also dare readers to sit down for 15 minutes with someone who has different political views with the singular task of trying to appreciate their political perspective and its origins. What do they believe in and why? The goal is to appreciate their perspective, not change their mind. All of a sudden, the person who’s watching Fox News or MSNBC seems a little less crazy. You almost certainly will still disagree, but you now understand their story. This is the civic mindset at work: We may have serious political differences, but we’re all in this together.

Negotiation Briefings: What if you believe you or those close to you have been directly harmed by a government policy or decision? You might not want anything to do with friends, family, or colleagues who voted for the officials behind that decision.

Daniel L. Shapiro: Reflect on your own moral code. If you believe that all human beings act with positive intention, you may decide to build personal relations with them no matter the impact of their politics on you. But if you believe they intended to hurt you, you may decide to distance from them. You can also look at this issue through a utilitarian lens: What are the benefits and dangers of maintaining such relationships? If you cut someone out of your social circle, you might lose the opportunity to influence them. Everyone must answer these moral questions for themselves.

Negotiation Briefings: Communities come together in times of crisis, as we’re seeing now, and political divisions fade somewhat. How can we maintain this civic mindset?

Daniel L. Shapiro: It starts by checking your own mind. Turn on a news station that espouses political views with which you disagree, and notice the thoughts running through your head. Are you trying to understand their viewpoint or criticize it? This same internal dialogue runs through our mind anytime we talk with people who hold opposing political views. The more we understand our own mind, the more we can temper the tribal mindset while still pursuing our own political interests with equal vigor.

For advice on negotiation and dispute resolution in the Covid-19 era, subscribe to Negotiation Briefings.

What approaches have you used to get along better with people who have opposing political views?

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