Our country feels ablaze right now. We watch a growing death count from an incurable virus and read ever-changing guidelines for taking precautions. We discover a growing death count of black bodies and hear renewed cries for just reform. Lest we think 2020 might let us catch a breath, some headline will remind us an election is around the corner. Even though most of us are seeing family and friends less, the tense climate makes this year feel like one prolonged Thanksgiving dinner where that family member made the mistake of uttering a hot-button statement while everyone was just trying to enjoy their seconds on mashed potatoes. These conversations are much more important than potatoes, but it’s easy for them to become just as messy.
I’ve debated how to enter this scene on a public platform. I never feel equipped enough to have strong opinions about politics, still, this year is pushing me to open my mouth about topics I normally would have stayed silent on. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one feeling a tightness in my chest over conversations too tense to enter and too urgent not to. So I’ll write on what I do feel equipped to handle: human relations. We all have different styles for talking politics with others—I lean towards what some may critique as too passive and others may commend as empathetic. Some people are more confrontational, more informative, more personal. Whatever the style for starting dialogue, it won’t be as effective if it’s started from the wrong place.
I’m still working out my personal philosophy on how (and if) you can change someone’s mind, but I believe when change does happen, it was bred in the right environment. One of openness, respect, and safety. And to reach that environment, a conversation has to begin on the right foot—or rather, the right brain.
Let’s take a fun little detour through neuroscience for a minute. As we learn more about the ways the brain works, we’ve learned it has two tracks for processing information. The “old” brain is the system we have in common with our primitive ancestors and other animals. It quickly processes sensory, motor, and emotional data. The “new” brain is an evolved system which has given rise to things like language, creativity, imagination, empathy. You know, the stuff that makes us human.
A problem can arise, however, because our old brain works faster than our new brain—meaning our bodies react faster than we can become conscious of an experience. For example, we pull our hand back from a hot stove or avoid a near-miss while driving before we’ve realized what was happening. The old-brains’ reaction time is actually helpful in those cases but can become problematic when processing emotional stuff. The lag between the old and new brain is only a half-second, but that’s forever in neuron time. In the half-second before we come to a conscious understanding of something we just experienced, the brain scans our memories, bodies, and emotions for relevant information, often reaching a perception based on templates of past experiences. Basically, a lot of our perceptions are based off unconscious forces that occur in that half-second, even though they feel like conclusions we came to ourselves. That is why some researchers have deemed this lag the “the vital half-second.”
If there’s ever a time to be aware of our reactive conclusions, now is the time. And I don’t just mean analyzing our assumptions, but analyzing how we talk about them. When we’re engaged in contentious conversations, especially with people we have dynamic relationships with, it’s never as simple and pure as sharing ideas. Being fired up might feel like passion about political views, but there are probably ulterior motives underneath as well.
One of the things our new brain gives us is metacognition- the ability to think about our own thinking. We have to actively engage that brain—our human side—when emotions are high. To pause in that vital-half second and pay attention to what is motivating our responses. (Translation for introverts: pausing for a half-second = several hours to several days). Is any of our feistiness actually defensiveness? Disgust? A desire to portray a certain identity? Or maybe we’re feeling fear, an emotion deeply rooted in our animal-brain, which biologically lowers our ability to problem-solve and regulate emotions. None of these are great dynamics for creating an environment that breeds change.
Just recently, a friend posted a political statement that made me instantly feel worked up. I proclaimed my sassy response to the laundry I was folding, but actually let a few days pass before saying anything. In that time I realized while I still agreed with the idea I wanted to convey, part of my motivation was to make him feel inferior. My motivation was much more about the nature of our relationship than the actual content of my idea (and probably wouldn’t help the content land either). I typed up my response, much softer than I originally had intended, and pressed send.
If we really want these conversations to be effective, to be open enough that learning and growth can occur, we have to do the work of making sure we don't make them about ourselves. Living from our reactive brain can be damaging. It only takes a half-second to tweet something that leads to hate crimes. Or pull a trigger that ends an innocent life.
Most of our individual actions don’t hold that much power, but we do have the power to make change through conversations , if we do them right.
As my church used to sing in the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” As my old high school students would say: “Don’t be animal.” Let’s do this with grace, friends. Conversations about respect for human lives should begin with it for each other.
**I am open to disagreement on anything I’ve said here—leave a post in the comments or email me and we’ll continue the respectful conversation.
 Cozolino, L.J. & Santos, E.N. (2014). Why We Need Therapy—and Why It Works: A Neuroscientific Perspective. Smith College Studies in Social Work (84): 157-177.