Bob Van Oosterhout

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Reaching Out to the Other Side (Part 1)
Bob Van Oosterhout

There is a simple test to determine if we are ready to reach out to someone with an opposing political view.  It can be summarized in one word: intent.  What are my intentions?  If my goal is to convince the other person of the wisdom of my position and the error in theirs, I am not ready to proceed.  Logic alone cannot make the leap across vast differences.

Attempts “to reason” with someone with very different political views creates a wall that gets thicker and higher as conversation evolves into argument.  Both sides become more deeply cemented in their views resulting in frustration, exasperation, and eventually anger.     

Taking Down Our Wall
We have a tendency to defend ourselves when told we’re wrong about something that we feel strongly about.  We put up a wall.  We stop listening while we form our response, which usually involves creating a convincing argument that it’s the other who is wrong.  They respond by erecting their own wall, which leads them to only listen to enough of our argument to formulate a counter attack.  The walls get thicker and higher as tension increases.  Eventually each of us concludes that the other is irrational and insufferable and the conversation ends with both of us being frustrated and irritated.

It helps to form a picture of how this works.  Think of the increasing pressure as water flowing between two walls.  Each side builds thicker walls in response to the pressure of the water.  That narrows the stream, increasing the pressure on both walls.  This leads to building even thicker walls, which further narrow the stream, escalate the pressure, and isolating us.   

The problem can be resolved by making a decision to take down our wall.  The water flows away and releases the pressure on the opposing wall.  When there is no pressure on the other wall, it becomes unnecessary and can gradually come down.   When both walls are down we can more clearly see how to navigate the divide that separates us.  

We create our walls to protect us from judgment and insult. They are constructed out of fear.  The water creating pressure on the walls is our tendency to judge the other while believing that we are right and they are wrong.  When we let go of fear and shift our intent from proving we are right to understanding how the other’s belief makes sense to them, our wall comes down and we can begin to communicate.  

This requires letting go of judgment.  Judging others gives us a false sense of superiority that creates distance between us.  Judgment involves dropping people into “Dead-End Categories” that block further understanding.  It is like coming to a “Y” in a road and making the turn that leads to a dead end.  One road leads to curiosity and interest.  The road of judgment stops the conversation and our ability to learn about the person we are judging.  Meaningful conversation is blocked when we define who we are talking to by Dead End Categories such race, sex, religion, class, appearance, sexual orientation, etc..  Political consultants are adept at creating and reinforcing Dead End Categories that prevent exploration that might lead to deeper understanding.

Taking down our wall also requires that we let go of being “right.”  That doesn’t mean that we’re wrong or even that we need to adjust or adapt our beliefs.  We simply put what we believe to be true on a temporary shelf and focus on understanding the feelings, needs, and perceptions of the other.  When we do this we realize there wasn’t much to be afraid of in the first place.

Let’s say that I am absolutely correct in what I believe.  I know everything there is to know about the topic and can see absolutely no good reason for anyone in their right mind to think differently.  If I am correct, suspending this belief for a few moments costs me nothing.  Challenging my belief from another perspective could actually lead to a further clarity and depth of understanding that strengthens my belief.  There’s also a possibility that there might be a gap somewhere in my information or reasoning.  Filling that gap deepens my belief.

Our wall comes down when we decide to let go of judgment and being right in order to listen with respect and curiosity.  The goal is not to win but to understand.  The winner is truth and a newfound capacity to work together to create a better future.

Understanding Perception
Finding common ground requires shared perception - getting on the same page.  There are three components of perception that limit our capacity to understand others.  Using an analogy from photography, we can think of perception in terms of frames, filters, and focus.

Frames define what we believe and form the picture of what we see.  They incorporate our values, experience, and understanding of how things are.  They define what we perceive as real.  I had a framed picture of the moon rising over the ocean on the wall of my counseling office.  I would show it to patients and point out there could have been a boat or a person drowning just outside the frame.  We can’t see them because the photographer didn’t include it in her picture. What we see in the photograph is limited by the frame, just as our understanding of our world is limited by our learning and experience.

Political consultants have fine-tuned the skill of using frames to create and reinforce Dead End Categories.  Voters are less likely to ask questions when opposing candidates or positions are framed as wrong-headed, closed-hearted, and dangerous.  Positions or ideas outside these frames are quickly dismissed with well-rehearsed labels.  Elections become more like sporting events where the home team is favored whether nor not they play well or fairly.  Forming fixed, rigid frames in the electorate insures ongoing support with little risk that opposing positions or candidates will be given serious consideration.

Filters are the emotional component.  Photographers use filters on camera lenses to create a particular emotion or mood.  Filters color and limit what we see.  We take off sunglasses when we go indoors because they limit our vision.  We might miss a red light when looking through rose colored lenses.

I worked with a man who was having an ongoing argument with an old friend about splitting the cost of something they had bought together.  Each had a very different view of what was fair and the tension was escalating with each interaction.  We explored the nature of the relationship and I learned that they had been very good friends for years and this was their first real disagreement.  We discussed the importance of the amount of money that was in dispute and I asked him if the loss of relationship was worth the money involved and he decided to apologize and agree to his friend’s demands.  

The next session he brought in a copy of the email he had written along with the response he received from his friend.  My patient’s email described how much he valued their friendship and stated that he would accept whatever offer his friend thought was fair.  The response from his friend was filled with anger and vitriol.  His friend had viewed the first few words of the email through a filter filled with anger and hurt and failed to see the message that was being conveyed.  I suggested that he send another email asking his friend to re-read his previous message when he was more calm and relaxed.  The problem was then resolved.

It is important to note that filters based on fear, hurt, and/or anger can totally block our ability to see and take in new information.  Political advisors use this as a highly effective tactic.  Mention of a single word can trigger an emotional response that immediately cuts off communication.  The most common political filter is fear.  Fear grabs our attention and narrows our focus.  We are less likely to ask questions or analyze positions when viewing an opposing candidate or position through a filter of fear.

Focus is what we pay attention to.  A photographer sets the focus to highlight the most important part of a picture.  What we focus on becomes a priority because it fills our attention.  Political advisors work to pull our focus toward real or imagined shortcomings of opposing candidates and their positions.  This reduces the likelihood that voters will support the opponent while preventing them from questioning the beliefs or qualifications of their candidate.

Political arguments emphasize contrast.  As tension increases, differences are enlarged.  It is like a camera zooming in on a single flower until it fills the entire frame.  Unfortunately, the focus in politics is not on enhancing beauty and understanding but on creating fear and distance. “Wedge issues” split the focus into opposing views so that we are not longer looking at the same picture.

Finding common ground starts with discovering what we have in common.  Meaningful conversation requires overlapping frames, clear filters, and shared focus. We can communicate effectively with people with very different views when we clear our filters, create flexible frames, and adapt our focus to priorities and circumstances.  

How Walls Come Down
Making the decision to take down our walls doesn’t automatically dissolve them.  It might feel like our walls are down but they can pop up stronger and thicker than before when we feel challenged or judged.  Taking down our walls is not a complicated process but it does take time and ongoing effort.  There are three basic principles that consistently help us to bring walls down and keep them down: Accept, Balance, and Clarify.  You can think of them as ABC, but it is important to always start with Balance.    

Balance involves stopping the build-up of tension. When tension builds to a certain point, physical, mental, and emotional functions not necessary for survival essentially go off-line.  Our body stops activity that maintains health and shifts energy to muscles to run, fight, or freeze.  This increases the build up of tension in non-survival situations.  Our focus narrows and is drawn to potential threats or problems.  Learning and creativity are blocked as our mind is pulled to what we believe worked before.  Empathy disappears and our emotional reaction is like a hard slap on sunburn.  The resources we need for meaningful conversation become less available as stress increases and we slip further into crisis mode. Our capacity to reflect and understand recedes as tension builds. We stop listening and try to gain power over the other by increasing the force of our argument and our voice.  We react rather than respond, push and press our own position rather than explore and evaluate the position of the other.  We become opponents.  The fact that we are both citizens of the same nation with common values and beliefs is overshadowed by fear, defensiveness, and anger.

Recognizing when tension is building is an indication that there is need for a shift in how and what we are communicating.  Stopping to take a few breaths or going for a walk can make all the difference in the world.  These are the most common among a number of ways to find some respite from stress.  Most involve, slowing and deepening our breathing, relaxed movement, quiet, or distraction and diversion.

Full recovery from the chronic build up of tension helps us recognize when tension first starts to build and quickly restore Balance.  Full recovery is different than short-term relief.  It requires commitment and focus over time (often days to weeks) but it is well worth it.  Learning to fully restore and maintain Balance allows access to all of the personal resources needed for meaningful conversation.  We can slow down and listen without becoming defensive.  We can expand our frames and consider other perspectives.  Our capacity for empathy is restored and we can let go of judgment and adversarial thinking.  We are able to recognize areas of common interest and explore realistic solutions.  Balance allow us to see how our own walls interfere with communication and to bring and keep them down.

Learning how to restore and maintain physical, mental, and emotional Balance has been the primary focus of my career in counseling and teaching since 1976.  Over this time I narrowed the process to four techniques that directly address the physiological and psychological changes that take place when we are in crisis mode.  This is explained in detail in my book “Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension.”  There are links to videos on my website that explain how and why each of these techniques work to restore Balance.  They can be viewed at

Acceptance brings us into the moment and frees us to respond appropriately. We acknowledge what did or didn’t happen without blame or judgment.  We recognize that where we are right now is the starting place for improvement.  This requires that we let go of where we “should” be or what someone else “should” see, think, or do.  We acknowledge that there is a problem and focus on finding solutions.  Blame, judgment, and “should” create distractions that only make things worse.  We let them go so we can move forward.

Acceptance also involves recognizing the essential dignity of each person and realizing that their current views and beliefs make perfect sense to them based on their history and experience.  It encourages us to explore and understand what they feel and need at this time.

Acceptance doesn’t mean approval.  It simply acknowledges the reality of the situation and removes common obstacles to developing meaningful dialogue.  Acceptance generates the respect and understanding which makes it easier for people with different views and beliefs to lower their walls.

Clarifying involves asking questions that help us see a larger picture and relevant details more clearly.  It allows us to discern and understand the filters that keep us from being seen or heard and to identify the frames that form the current boundaries of discussion.  Good questions help us recognize and redirect the focus from defending adversarial positions to finding areas of common interest and agreement.  

Balance restores our capacity to listen and understand.  Acceptance removes obstacles that block our ability to communicate.  Clarifying identifies what we have to work with and helps us discover paths that lead to meaningful conversations.  It is helpful to practice them and keep them in mind before starting a conversation with someone with different views.  Whenever tension starts to build or conversation becomes unpleasant, we can think of “ABC” and choose to restore Balance, Accept who we are with and where we are, and Clarify the next step to finding common ground.

Steps for Finding Common Ground
Creating conditions for meaningful conversation with someone with very different political views is rarely done quickly and cannot be accomplished in a hurry.  It is an ongoing process that proceeds through a number of steps.  Balance, Acceptance and Clarifying lay the groundwork for expanding frames, clearing filters, and developing shared focus and are key to establishing meaningful conversation.  Applying these principles to each of the steps for finding common ground allows us to keep moving in a helpful direction.

A common tendency is to use logic and reason to convince people of the wisdom of our position.  
However expanding another person’s frame requires that they have an open mind and a degree of comfort in questioning their beliefs.  Frames that have become fixed through fear, blame, judgment and Dead End Categories resist logic and argument and tend to become more rigid when challenged with facts or reasoning.  Therefore, expanding frames is not the place to start.  The first two steps in finding common ground with someone with opposing beliefs involve understanding emotions, needs, and concerns in order to establish respect based on shared experience.  Once we get to a place get to a place where we can honestly say to the other person “I can see how that makes sense to you,” we can take the third step and begin to explore areas of mutual interest and concern.   

(Part 2)

Step One: Understanding Emotion

Step 2:  Understanding and Clarifying Needs and Concerns

Step Three: Exploring Areas of Mutual Interest and Concern

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former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Johnny Lee Clary.