by Bonnie Vander Wal, Ph.D., CAPS Staff Counselor

This post is the second in a series of three planned posts leading up to Election Day, 2020. CAPS staff counselor Dr. Bonnie Vander Wal writes to help the Hope Community navigate the turbulent election season with an eye on maintaining mental health.

So this really happened. 

I went out over the weekend to buy groceries and was greeted by a friendly older gentlemen who worked at the store. While disinfecting my cart, I overheard him talking to another gentlemen, a fellow shopper, presumably about the election.

Fellow shopper: “… so you don’t think Hillary was prepared either?”

Friendly older worker: “ …[inaudible]…”

Fellow shopper: “Well, we’re going to have a female president sooner or later.”

Friendly older worker: “Well I hope not in my lifetime!”

Nice. I was struck in the moment about what to say or do. I wasn’t in the conversation, but it was loud enough for others to hear. Do I interject? Do I offer my unsolicited opinion? As a female, this opinion was not new to me. Yet I still felt a surge of anxiety in the moment and froze in my spot. “Just move along” I told myself, “You’re here to get groceries, not to change the world.” I walked away shaking my head, “Bless his heart,” I thought, “It may be closer than he thinks.” 

As I went along my route, my mind continued to ruminate about this. I gave myself an out but kept wondering if that was just an excuse. What would be my goal in saying something? I certainly don’t expect I would’ve changed his mind. Would it have helped to offer some awareness to him? It may have helped me to speak my mind and assert my response to what I overheard. Would he even care though? 

Beyond that, I was mostly just curious about why he held this opinion. In his experience, did his mother do a terrible job of managing the household? Given his age, I was making some assumptions about how he was raised and the gender roles he grew up with. Maybe a bad experience with a female supervisor did him in. Or maybe just a bossy older sister? Perhaps none of those things, but as a psychologist fascinated with human behavior, his comments did capture my curiosity. I wanted to know more. 

Our series

In Part 1 of this blog series about mental health and the election season, we looked at how participation in the election process offers mental health benefits such as empowerment, social well-being, and a sense of purpose. Each person’s vote is no greater or less than any other person’s vote, which is pretty powerful. Engaging in civic duty connects us to others and brings us closer to those in our community. Not only does this help us feel like we belong, but asserting what we believe and uniting with others gives us purpose, even if we can’t actually cast our vote in this election.

Honestly, it is much easier to insulate ourselves with like-minded folks and just avoid “the other side.”

Certainly it is nice to be around others that share our views. This gives us empowerment, connection, and purpose – all important factors in mental health. Honestly, it is much easier to insulate ourselves with like-minded folks and just avoid “the other side.” Our efforts to stick with “our people” keep us safe and give us strength in numbers. It’s comfortable. Given our human nature and need to belong, is this really a bad thing? Not exactly; however, sequestering ourselves in safe zones has also contributed to deeper political polarization and staunch tribalism. When people revert to their respective sides and don’t talk to others who hold different viewpoints or positions, it furthers the divide and we don’t accomplish much, if anything.

At Hope we hear a lot about the Virtues of Public Discourse and our responsibility to engage one another in meaningful and respectful ways. President Scogin, in his address “Who Would Jesus Vote For?” encourages us to embody love and listening in our discourse with one another. He advises that before we counter an argument, we reflect back what we heard from the other person, in a summary that person agrees with, and that we listen more than we speak. Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown challenges us, being rooted in belonging, understanding, and grace, to be different than what we see around us, and to illustrate HOPE to the world.  The Rev. Dr. Trygve Johnson offers us an opportunity to claim our culture to be a different kind of place, and reminds us to be quick to listen and slow to speak

So… we get it… we need to talk more to each other, notably those who hold different perspectives than our own. All of these messages sound great and are quite inspiring when we hear our campus leaders, in their own right, “campaign” for them. We may feel reassured that we can have difficult dialogue with one another and even energized to bridge the divide! On second thought though, after the excitement fades and the fear sets in, or our critical voice taunts us that we are ill-equipped at best to handle such an adventurous endeavor, what then do we do? Does it really matter? And if so, HOW do we do this?

Going Beyond Your Bubble

Dr. Tania Israel, professor of counseling psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, offers insight and effective methods for dialogue in her book “Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work.” In case you are thinking, “well so much for that now, the election is next week,” I urge you to still read on. The goal of connecting across the divide is not to change someone’s mind, and thus, their vote. Would it really be that easy to change your vote? The issues we discuss at election time don’t go away the rest of the year. We still need strategies on how to discuss complex concerns, especially with the holiday season – correction, the holiday season after an election – approaching.

Dr. Israel’s book teaches and develops skills that help you navigate dialogues. Before you can learn skills and practice them, you assess your intentions into the decision to dialogue. Once you understand what dialogue is, you can decide if you want to engage in it, with whom, and in what contexts. Dr. Israel covers preparation for dialogue, how to listen, and managing emotions as a basis for successful dialogue. With this foundation, she helps us communicate effectively by telling our story and finding common ground.  Here are a few key strategies to consider:  

1 Assess your motivation for dialogue. Changing someone’s mind or arguing your position are not helpful goals that will facilitate dialogue. If you are looking to increase your understanding of someone and their views or build and maintain a relationship with someone, you have a much better chance of success. Dr. Israel states that knowing your motivation helps you push past the discomfort involved. 

2 Listen. This is your opportunity to learn more about someone else and establish the foundation for when it’s your turn to talk. Dr. Israel advises using active listening skills and asking open-ended questions to allow space to elaborate. Your goal is to understand the person and help that person feel safe, which reduces defensiveness and resistance. You discover more about that person’s beliefs and values, which helps you identify common ground and establish connection. 

3 Manage emotion.  When talking about issues that you care deeply about, it’s normal to experience anxiety. It is a natural reaction to a threat to our safety. Many generations ago, it was the most useful tool our ancestors had to further their survival. Fast forward to today and our bodies are still wired with the same safety mechanism; however, the threats are much different. Anxiety can breed avoidance which robs us of the opportunity to overcome our fears. Thus, anxiety today interferes with progress that promotes our survival.

So how we do manage this? One activity in preparation for dialogue is expressive writing. This strategy relieves emotion and helps bring insight into what we are experiencing. In the midst of a dialogue, when trying to listen and learn from the other person, Dr. Israel reminds us to take deep breaths and stay grounded by focusing on the present moment and noticing your body (e.g., feet on the floor, arms in the chair, etc.). Remind yourself that your physiological response is normal and you are not in danger. You also can recall that you are working toward a common goal together. Stay curious about the person as you listen and remember to consider the context of life experiences. 

4 Adjust your message. Think about when you are talking to people you share similar views with and how you communicate your position. What you say on an issue to someone who agrees with you likely won’t get you the same result as with someone whose views differ. To help someone better understand your position, offer what contributed to your beliefs or position. Tell a story that gives context to your life experiences. 

5 Additional tips. Dr. Israel suggests setting aside statistics to make your point. We know from research that we tend to pay attention to what supports our position and ignore what doesn’t. Statistics don’t typically initiate viewpoints as much as they confirm what we already believe. You can also practice taking the other’s perspective by imagining what someone will counter to your points. Finally, exercise intellectual humility, which is being open-minded enough to other views to consider what you may have missed or gotten wrong.

Consider learning how to dialogue to enhance your mental health. You improve your communication skills which builds confidence and comfort around others. Dialogue reveals the various perspectives between the more extreme views we are exposed to in the media.

Often what we imagine about someone on the other side is fraught with assumptions and stereotypes. This increases perceived threat and can lead to discord which divides us. Dialogue reduces psychological distress by offering space for resolution and healing. We are able to discover common ground with those who share differing views and this connects us to each other, our community, and the greater good. 

Next steps

Now that we’ve covered how participation in the election process and engaging in dialogue–while challenging–can improve our mental health, our next post will turn to helpful practices that protect and comfort us in confusing and uncertain times. You’ve likely heard the recurring message to plan your vote? How about planning your self-care? Stay tuned for Part 3 of our blog series on mental health and the election season!

For additional strategies, check out this episode of Hope Ready with Dr. Ellen and Deirdre Johnson. in a new tab)

You can also read about how effective dialogue connected these two Hope professors.

For Dr. Israel’s humorous but useful take on dialogue, check out The Flowchart That Will Resolve All Political Conflict in Our Country.

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