Topics discussed include: Bill’s approach to couples counseling; thoughts on dealing with the common situation where one partner is much more interested in healing the relationship than the other; the importance of seeing our role in a conflict, and why that can be hard for us; how he got into the depolarization work; the similarities he sees between relationship counseling and political depolarization work; the psychological principles that have informed Braver Angels’ approaches; the value of in-group dissent in lowering animosity; thoughts on what the ask is for people who want to help with depolarization work.
- Braver Angels’ online workshop Depolarizing Within, which Bill recommended
- A talk I had with John Wood, Jr., who is also a lead at Braver Angels
- Bill’s site focused on discernment counseling
- A piece of mine about the importance of criticizing divisive behaviors in your own political group
- Site for my book Defusing American Anger: www.american-anger.com, which includes a compilation of books on polarization
- Episodes from this podcast about polarization
Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood.
This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at www.behavior-podcast.com.
On this episode, i talk to relationship therapist Bill Doherty, who is also the co-founder of the group Braver Angels, which is a non-profit that works on political depolarization and bridge-building endeavors.
As you may know if you listen to this podcast, I sometimes do episodes about the nature of political polarization and conflict, and I’ve got a book aimed at reducing divides in America titled Defusing American Anger. I was very interested to talk to Bill, as I think it’s interesting and fitting that he’s both a relationship therapist and someone doing political conflict resolution work, as I think there are so many similarities in that area.
We talk about Bill’s relationship counseling work: what he’s focused on in that area, and how he approaches the common situation where one partner in a relationship wants to get counseling and is leaning in and the other partner is leaning out and isn’t as involved in the process. We talk about the dynamic where we can sometimes induce the very behaviors we dislike in a partner. We talk about how he got into the depolarization-aimed work, and what similarities he sees between couples counseling and depolarization work. Towards the end we discuss the question: what are we trying to get people to do when it comes to depolarization work: what is the ask of citizens who want to help with that problem?
A little bit more about Bill’s experience: He’s a Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota where he directs The Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project and The Citizen Professional Center. Clinically, he focuses on couples on the brink of divorce, on relational ethics in the everyday lives of clients, and on political stress in relationships. Following the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, he co-founded Braver Angels, a citizen initiative bringing conservatives and liberals together to counteract political polarization and restore the fraying social fabric in American society. Braver Angels now has volunteers working in all 50 states. His latest book is The Ethical Lives of Clients: Transcending Self-Interest in Psychotherapy, published by the American Psychological Association. Among his awards is the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Family Therapy Academy.
You can learn more about his therapy work at https://thedohertyapproach.com. His last name is spelled DOHERTY. You can follow Bill on Twitter at @billdoherty You can learn more about the group Braver Angels at braverangels.org.
If you’re interested in getting a paid Premium subscription to this podcast, go to my website and check that out. You’ll get ad-free access, and be able to collaborate with me on episodes by seeing questions I plan for guests, and more.
If you’re new to depolarization-aimed ideas and you’re a politically passionate person, there’s a decent chance you’ll have some objections to the concept of depolarization. There’s a lot to theoretically say about that, but for now I’ll just say that, if you do have such objections, I hope you’re curious to learn more. One of the reasons I wrote my book Defusing American Anger was to overcome some common objections and to show politically passionate people, whether liberal or conservative, why they should want to reduce the toxicity of our divides. And there’s a lot of other work people have done on this topic, and I list a lot of books on this topic at my site american-anger.com. If you want, you can even reach out to me personally via the contact form on my site behavior-podcast.com and send me your objections or other thoughts, and I’m happy to respond, as I think this is such an important topic.
Okay, here’s the talk with Bill Doherty. Hi, Bill, thanks for coming on the show.
Bill Doherty: Happy to be with you.
Zach: Maybe we could start with a little bit about how you got into the couples counseling work. How did you get into specializing in that?
Bill: Well, for me, and I think for a lot of therapists, this specialty sort of emerges over time with who comes to see you. I started out doing a family systems therapy with adolescents and their parents in Connecticut when I was in graduate school, and then over time I began to realize that a lot of the adolescent’s issues were related to their parent’s relationship and their parent’s marriage. And so the kid would do better and the parents wanted to hang around and try to work on their relationship, so I started to do more couples’ work. And then over time, that’s what people came to see me for. That’s how I ended up specializing in couples.
Zach: Did you feel like… Were there certain things you felt you had a natural affinity for when it came to working out those kinds of issues?
Bill: I’m not sure, actually, it would be easy to say that in retrospect. But I like dealing with more than one person at a time, so I liked family therapy, I liked the couples’ work and so it just sort of evolved over time. And I think I’m pretty good at it but I don’t know that it was some conscious strategy that, “I’m uniquely good at this work so I’ll do it.”
Zach: Mhm. Like a lot of work, you find yourself in it and you go down the path. Yeah.
Bill: Right. Right. And then with adolescents, of course, if you’re not keeping up with where adolescents are, you’re incompetent in that work. So I have never worked with teens and families now without completely retooling.
Zach: Are there certain schools of thought or philosophy that drive your work? For example, I sometimes see people say existential humanism or these kinds of schools of thought. Do you have things in that realm?
Bill: Well, I’m pretty eclectic, as I think most therapists are. But if I had a name and approach, it would be a systems interactional approach. You know, a Family Systems Approach. When people come to me as a couple, they’re coming for the relationship. And so I’m a relationship therapist using systemic ideas for how people communicate, rather than seeing myself as primarily treating two individuals who happen to be in a relationship.
Zach: One thing I’ve been curious about– and sometimes on this podcast I just asked people what I had been curious about– when I watched that show Couples Therapy, I think that’s what it was called, or just reading about couples therapy in general, it sometimes seems like there’s sometimes one partner that’s a little bit more resistant than the other partner to examining their role in that dynamic system as you say. Do you find that often to be the case? Some people might say that’s a more narcissistic trait to not self-examine or to be oblivious to one’s role in a dynamic. I’m curious, do you see that often to be the case, or is it more spread out?
Bill: Yeah. Well, the thing about Couples Therapy is that there’s almost always somebody who is more interested in doing it. There is somebody who proposes it who often convinces the other person, so you have somebody who is more enthusiastic for the work. That’s just a given. What that means is, as a therapist, you have to really induce the other person to really sign on. And I don’t view that as that person’s problem necessarily, it’s just that they may not be as therapy-prone. We live in a psychological age and some people are just more interested in introspection. They read more self-help books, maybe they’ve had individual therapy, and the other person may not be the coin of the realm for them as much. So I just take it for granted that you’ll have different levels of interesting capacity, at least at the beginning, in looking at oneself. I always loathe to use the terms like ‘narcissistic’ or other pejorative labels– which by the way often in the therapy world, terms like narcissistic are used to say you don’t like somebody more than it’s… Well, they’re not cooperating with me like I want, more than they have an actual personality disorder. So I take the approach that I just assume to summarise that people will differ in their interest in looking at themselves and it’s my job to bring everybody along.
Zach: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I actually have a plan to interview Craig Malkin who’s written a book about some of the more nuanced aspects of narcissism, and like you say, people seem prone to throw it around way too much these days to describe basically like you say, things they don’t like in someone. Yeah. So getting to the work you said or the aspect you said where one person is more interested than the other, that dynamic… And that relates, I think you said you did work that you call discernment therapy which is where one person really doesn’t want to be there in my understanding what that was.
Bill: The specialty I evolved over time was working with what we call mixed agenda couples, and that is when somebody is leaning towards divorce, breakup, and also is really ambivalent about trying couples therapy. The classic leaning out, they’re on the edge, they’re on the brink, not highly motivated at this point to come into therapy and work on solving the problems. They don’t know the problems can be solved, they’re demoralized. And then the other person is usually leaning in. That is somebody who’s saying, “I know we can work on this, I want to stay in the relationship.” Sometimes it’s the leaning-out person has only recently come clean that they’re that much on the brink and then the other spouse goes, “Oh, my goodness, we can make this work. Don’t do anything precipitous here.” That’s a couple who, when they present to traditional couples therapy, tend to fail. They tend to bum out. Because you have somebody who was an eager customer, if you will, for the therapy and the other persons sitting there with their arms folded and saying, “I’m not so sure that this is going to work. I’m not sure I want to stay.” And so the therapist is in this bind because you have somebody who isn’t necessarily signing up for the work that you’ve prepared in your career to offer.
Every experienced therapist has run into these cases, not that uncommon. And so I developed a kind of a pre-therapy approach I call discernment counseling. It’s basically short-term, no more than five sessions, and it’s to help the leaning-out person get clarity and confidence about a direction for the relationship and for both of them to understand what’s happened to the marriage and each person’s contributions to the problems. I won’t go into more details unless you like, but basically, you’re helping them to decide whether to do a full bout of couples therapy at least once everybody’s in, or the leaning out decides to divorce. Or they could just decide on neither. But it’s an approach where you work with them. They both come in together but you see them mostly separately because they’re in very different places. So it’s a very interesting kind of an emergency room or intensive care approach to working with couples on the brink.
Zach: Well, yeah. That relates to a question I was going to ask, which is, it seems kind of obvious if you don’t want to work on your marriage, it would be hard to get you to work on your marriage. Which I guess is what you’re saying there. It’s like getting them to even commit to working on the marriage, it sounds like. Yeah.
Bill: That’s right. That’s right. And it’s interesting we call it discernment counseling rather than therapy because what we’re really emphasizing is when you start this short-term process, you’re not doing therapy, you’re not doing couples therapy. What I mean by couples therapy is that you’re trying to solve problems, you’re trying to get closer, you’re trying to figure out how to make a better life together. That’s what therapy is about; couples therapy. Discernment counseling is figuring out whether that’s possible and whether you’d want to do it.
Zach: This is probably a pretty broad question but for talking about the people that might be a bit, you know, the less introspective people or the people who haven’t examined their role maybe in the marriage equation as much, are there certain tactics you take to help someone like that be willing to examine their role? I get that’s probably a pretty huge question. [chuckles]
Bill: Well, no, it’s a great question. Yeah, a starting point is, do you want to solve the problems in this relationship? How motivated are you to make things better, to get along better, to be closer? If you’re on the brink of divorce, how motivated are you– we’re talking about the leaning in– to make the marriage work? And so people are coming to couples therapy because they have a problem, they’re unhappy with something in the relationship. And so the key is to help them see that it takes two to make an unhappy marriage or to have chronic problems and that it’s in their best interest, if they want things to get better, to take a look in the mirror and to see how they are contributing. I thought a lot about this, I’m glad you asked the question, the first step for some folks who don’t think this way is looking at the unintended effects of what they say or don’t say. So, somebody who says, “Well, I just shut up because I don’t want to make things worse. I don’t do arguments because they don’t go anywhere and so I just kind of stick to myself.” But one of the things I help somebody see is that if you’re in an intimate relationship and you withdraw from connection and conversation, in your own mind, it can be, “I don’t want to make things worse. I don’t want a big fight so I’m going to withdraw.” And I say you kind of see yourself like a turtle, you know? Pulling in your head in your arms and just don’t make things worse. In an intimate relationship, you don’t come across like a turtle when you’re doing that, you come across like a porcupine. Because when you withdraw from somebody in a love relationship, they experience that as punishing. And so all– almost everybody gets that, okay? That’s what I’m saying. It’s the first step in the ladder because it’s saying, “I’m that person that it’s not like I want to be the punishing, but I can see that the unintended effect of that on the other person is that they feel like I’m really hurting them by withdrawing.” And so that’s a beginning of understanding that we have effects on one another that we don’t intend. Now, later on, when somebody gets into the habit of saying, “How am I part of the problem? How am I negatively affecting my spouse or partner?” then people can start to see that maybe in some way, they were angry and getting back at the other person subconsciously. But not just sort of like, “Oh, I stepped on your toe.” No, no, “I was actually kind of mad at you when I walked by your toe” Okay. That’s another level of understanding of one’s own contribution. So it’s a gradual thing but it’s really key to helping people resolve relationship problems that both people look in the mirror.
Zach: Yeah, and self-examination is very hard and being honest with yourself and with other people is very hard. Yeah.
Bill: It is. It is. And I think we live in a culture where it’s most tempting to fault the other person primarily. We’ve mentioned earlier in this interview that you can throw labels around, you know? So if you’re psychologically minded, read self-help books, keep up on the latest stuff, the most tempting thing in the world is to analyze your spouse or partner’s personality problems and where they came from and their family, you know? And get into their head with your astute analysis, which of course is quite self-serving, and it’s much harder to look at one’s own contributions or to have a very simplistic idea. My contribution is that I don’t stand up for myself enough, I’m too nice. “Well, okay, maybe.” But there’s a lot more going on than that.
Zach: Kind of reminds me of when it comes to polarization in general, it’s like a lot of times when we have a conflict we often just pull information in and use it; whatever information we can find to support our emotional judgments. So if we’re in a fight with our spouse, we might pull in all this self-help and psychological information but mainly use it to buttress up our argument about the other person’s deficiencies as opposed to examining the dynamic and our role in the equation and all these things.
Bill: Exactly. And this era we’re in where there’s so much psychological terminology available, I see it more and more than I did earlier in my career how people weaponize psychological terms. Like the narcissistic, or borderline. Oh, here’s another one: your husband doesn’t deal with feelings like you’d like and so maybe he’s on the autism spectrum, maybe he’s got Asperger’s or something like that. Whoa! Okay? That takes me off the hook, then.
Zach: That’s one of the reasons I do this podcast is to examine some of these simplistic mainstream ideas or ways these words are used, and dig into some of the nuances and see the spectrums there and how people reach for these labels a little bit too quickly. What you were saying about seeing each other’s roles in the equation, it reminded me of the… Do you know the book, The Anatomy of Peace, the well-known conflict resolution book?
Bill: I know of it, I have not read it.
Zach: Yeah. One great idea in there or probably a common concept– it is a common concept in conflict resolution, I think– but it emphasized in that book the way that when we’re in a big conflict, we can induce behaviors that we most dislike from the other person or the other side in the conflict, you know? The bad things that we see in those people, the way that we treat them will bring those bad behaviors out of them. And it kind of reminded me what you were saying when we see, you know, there’s various ways in a relationship where we can emphasize or accentuate and induce the very things we dislike. So if someone’s shut down or your partner’s shut down, the way you might treat them might induce them to shut down more. That’s just one example. But-
Bill: Exactly, exactly. This is part of understanding the dynamics and the dances that couples do. What we’re describing here is a demand withdrawal pattern, okay? Where I want something out of you, you feel pressured, you shut down, and then I criticize you for shutting down and then you’re shut down more. And then maybe sometime you blow up and then you feel really guilty about that and maybe I’ll use that on you. Or another common one is an over-functioning under-functioning pattern in a couple where for any number of reasons, somebody has assumed a lot of responsibility, say in child-rearing, and the other person is the third fiddle and this gets pretty old for the person who is doing a whole lot. The other person often hasn’t had to learn some things because there’s their partners doing it all, and so then the over-functioner gets frustrated and they come across like a critic. They come across patronizing, you know, that “I’ll try to teach you something if only you could learn.” And they really emphasize the incapacity of the other person who in turn is frustrated and angry about being treated like they’re a little kid and then they do their own passive-aggressive number.
Or, and this is now the subtleties that happen in relationships when you have a one-up one-down like I was just describing over-functioning and under-functioning under function, then the under-functioner will get back at the other person. I’m thinking about a couple where the wife did everything, the husband had this learned incompetence about child rearing and so on. Well, he in public would get back at her for not keeping up with current affairs. And whatever she expressed an opinion about something, he would suggest that she was really pretty ignorant. So when you have these imbalances in couples that are both participating, the person who seems to be one down, you’d have to look for how they sabotage and how they get back. And then in couples counseling that I do, it’s not that I’m doing this in a way that is in a ‘gotcha’, but it’s like stepping back and saying, “Hey, we’re co-creating this, okay? We each have a role in this and the dance is out of sync and we can rebalance it together.”
Zach: That’s a good segue into the polarization work but before we go to that, I wanted to ask you about the– because I once interviewed Brandi Fink who’s a relationship and relationship researcher and we talked about John Gottman’s work and behavioral indicators of good and bad relationships. For example, talked about the stereotypical eye-rolling which can indicate contempt in a relationship, somebody eye-rolling about someone’s partner. I’m curious, do you have thoughts on that area? For example, John Gottman I think was known for saying something like… I’m not sure if he’s actually said this or if it was just kind of a rumor but there was the perception that one could tell very quickly, based on some of these negative behaviors, what the state of someone’s relationship was. I’m curious, do you think some of that is much more? Is that very simplistic and it’s actually you can’t easily get the indicator of those kinds of things without a lot of work?
Zach: Well, you can get indicators of people’s current feelings about each other. The eye-roll is an indication that at this moment, somebody has some negative feelings about the other person. These are clues for what may be happening right now but in terms of being prognostic indicators– and that’s where the terrible misuse of John Gottman’s work comes in. He would do elaborate assessments of couples, elaborate assessments, and then make some predictions. And the way it gets watered down is that if you hear somebody being contemptuous, that their relationship is doomed because contempt is the most predictive factor in divorce according to his larger research. Well, you’re just getting a snippet of behavior. Even in therapy, the therapists they take on simplistic ideas from research. And then in the first session, they hear people saying that one or both of them had been contemptuous to each other. And then the therapist concludes they can’t make it, they’re going to dissolve. That’s really completely unfounded and dangerous. So I’m very cautious about taking brief samples of behavior. Okay? Brief samples of behavior. We have no context, and then thinking we can make predictions about the future of the relationship. That’s really hogwash.
Zach: No, I’m glad we get on that topic because that’s the kind of simplistic thing I like to examine in this podcast. I think people love the idea that I’m really going to get some deep analysis of people based on these small little behaviors but as you point out, it’s like being angry or contemptuous in the moment. Which is standard for any couple going through some problems, that doesn’t tell you about their deeper levels of commitment to each other or their actual dynamics and such.
Bill: That’s right, let alone their future. That’s where it gets risky as you start to predict the future.
Zach: Glad we got a chance to dimension that. Yeah, let’s talk about the polarization-related work. I only recently found out that you, in addition to the Braver Angels work and being co-founder, I only recently found out that you were doing the Couples Therapy– the marriage counseling– and that made complete sense to me because I’ve always thought the depolarization aimed to work for America or any country is so much similar to Couples Therapy in the sense that I kind of view it as couples therapy for a couple that is stranded on a desert island and can’t break up with each other, right? You have to figure it out. There’s not really any other option as I see it. But maybe you can talk a little bit about how your work led or how you got into the political polarization-related work. How did that come about?
Bill: Yeah, yeah. Just to follow up a little bit on your intro to it, I like to say that Reds and Blues, Conservatives and Liberals in the US are like a married couple who are not getting along. But unlike with a married couple, the divorce is not possible. You can’t have the blues move to Canada, you know? We are stuck with each other and we have this country to run together. And so I really got into this work by happenstance when two colleagues of mine who had worked in the marriage and fatherhood area with David Blankenhorn in New York City and David Lapp in southwest Ohio after the 2016 election, a few days afterwards, they were on the phone and talking about how differently people were feeling about the election in the Upper East Side of Manhattan where you can’t find a Trump voter practically, and Southwest Ohio where it was a hope and change. And they decided on the spur of the moment to get 10 Hillary Clinton voters and 10 Donald Trump voters together for 13 hours over a weekend in early December of 2016 to see if people could talk with each other and not just about each other. And they called me and asked me if I would design and facilitate it. I was a bit daunted by the idea but I had done a lot of community engagement work, I’d started a project at the same time with dealing with police and Black men and so I’m kind of in that space, and so I decided to take it on. It was only really over time after I designed this and facilitated and we decided to keep going– and out of that came Braver Angels– it was only actually over time that I began to realize how I was embedding the Couples Therapy principles in it. It wasn’t that I sat down and said, “Okay, what have I learned from Couples Therapy that I’m going to put into these Red/Blue workshops?” It was more like it was all implicit. I did it, designed it, and then began to conceptualize it.
Zach: Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you see those principles and philosophies overlapping. What psychological and counseling approaches have you added to the Braver Angels curriculum and approach?
Bill: Yeah. Well, a key one is that you don’t set out to try to change somebody. You set out to listen to them to try to understand them on their own terms, to explain yourself in respectful ways, but you don’t set out to convince somebody to change in some fundamental way. If they’re going to change, it’s going to be on their own. And so that respect for those boundaries that people have is really a key one. The second one is to create venues and processes where people can listen and really listen to understand rather than listen to respond and debate. So one of the exercises in our red– we call Red/Blue Workshop, be like a reds and blues– it’s a fishball exercise which has actually been a thing used commonly for 50 years. And that is you flip a coin for who’s going to be in a circle in the middle of the room– you can do this on Zoom as well. And then the other group is on the outer circle– later, they’ll switch roles. And the two questions for the people on the inside are, “Why are your sides values and policies good for the country?” And then the second question is, “What are your reservations or concerns about your own side?” So the first is to say what’s great about being Conservative or Liberal for the country, and the second is, “What’s the downside? What are your reservation concerns?” So, the group in the middle are having this discussion and the group on the outside’s only job is to listen and try to learn how these people in the inside see themselves and to look for anything in common. It gives you a chance for some listening without any response. In fact, the ground rule is you cannot respond verbally or non-verbally, you just sort of take it in. So it gives you this chance in a less pressurized environment than if somebody is talking right at you or to you to really listen. And then the questions, if you notice the questions, that second question is what I call the humility question. It’s where you and I started in this interview. It’s the self-reflection and the self-criticism; what do you see is the downside of your own side? And when people can nail that, when they can express both their enthusiasm for their political perspective and their reservations about it, then it opens up the possibility of people seeing each other beyond their stereotyped images of each other. That kind of thing happens in Couples Therapy as well.
Zach: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you was when I was at the Braver Angels convention recently and I was talking to Sage Snider– I’m pretty sure it was her or another Sage. Yeah, I know she’s a volunteer or worker for Braver Angels. But she had talked about and we got on the subject of psychology and I was saying… I had talked about the concept, which I think is very important, this concept of our group members perceiving another group’s dissent and disagreement. And there’s one study that’s called Exposure to Outgroup Members Criticizing Their Own Group Facilitates Intergroup Openness, and that and other studies show… It was in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict showing how when one group saw the other group’s complexity and how they were not this monolithic, stereotypical, all-the-same group and they had disagreements within their ranks and such, that naturally led to a lowering of anger in the group observing that. And Sage told me, “Oh, that’s like the fishbowl approach that Braver Angels did,” which is one of the things that got me interested in talking to you. Because I think that is such an important concept is it combats the out-group homogeneity effect, which is like seeing the other group is all the same. Right?
Bill: Exactly. And another exercise, in fact, one that we begin the Red/Blue Workshop with is a stereotypes exercise where each group, the reds and blues, go to a separate room with their own facilitator and they come up with and vote on the top four or five negative stereotypes that they think others have of them. False exaggerated views. Reds, for example, think they’re accused of being racist and not compassionate to the poor, anti-immigration, for example. Blues will put on their list that they think we’re all arrogant and elitist, we believe in big government for its own sake, and we’re anti-business. We’re baby killers, you know? We encourage people to just say it really bluntly. So they vote on their top four or five stereotypes that they think others have of them. And then there’s two questions that they answer. One is, “Well, what’s true instead? If you’re not all racist, if you’re not all anti-business on the other side, what’s true instead?”
And then the second question is, is there a kernel of truth in the stereotype? And we say kernels of truth may be true of a sub-group among folks on your side, it may be something from history that’s carried over, it may be in the heated rhetoric of public debate your group comes across this way. Or it may be a blind spot, something that your group doesn’t pay a lot of attention to. So what’s the kernel of truth? And so, boy, when people can name the kernels of truth that the stereotypes come out of nowhere, then they report that there’s somebody who reports out when we all get together to the other group that this is what we think of the stereotypes, this is how we correct the stereotypes. And this is what we say to kernels of truth. Whoa, that really opens things up. And then people in pairs and then in the whole group answer these two questions. What did you learn about how people on the other side see themselves? And did you see anything in common? So, how do they see themselves and anything common? And we have people in red-blue pairs and the whole group answers those questions after having heard this kind of self-disclosure from the other side.
Zach: Yeah, that’s great. Getting people to examine the complexities and how the perceptions each group forms of the other group, that’s really key to overcoming the animosity. Do I understand right that you’ve done that approach for Congress people and other groups, other organizations?
Bill: Yeah, we’ve done versions of this with state legislators, with some members of Congress in what’s called the Problem Solvers Caucus. With legislators, you have to be a little more careful. These are public figures and you can have them saying, “Yeah, well, there’s some racist among us,” or something like that. So we vary these. One of the things we’ve done– this would be actually worth talking about because this isn’t a carryover from a couples therapy and psychotherapy. One of the most powerful exercises we’ve done with elected officials including legislators and members of Congress is a life experiences exercise, where everybody gets four or five minutes to answer this question: What life experiences have influenced your values and beliefs about public policy and public service? What life experiences have influenced your values and beliefs about public policy and public service? Everybody gets a few minutes to take some notes. We encourage them to go deeper than, “You know, when I was elected to my middle school school council, I knew I was destined.” Kind of go a little deeper than that. And every time I’ve done this, it’s very powerful. There are stories of loss, of regaining hope, of people who inspired them, of hurdles transcended. There are often tears and everybody gets their time, and then afterwards, it’s the question of what did you learn from doing this?
I did this with some members of Congress, a Republican member of Congress of the house introduced himself and he said, “I’m as conservative as the day is long!” But he was also pragmatic and he knows people have to work across the aisle. And people shared their stories of hardship that they overcame, including him. It was very powerful. As they said, there were tears. And at the end, when I asked people to summarise what they took from this, he said this great line. He said, “You can’t fight somebody in the same way when you know their heart.” You can’t fight somebody in the same way when you know their heart. That’s what happens in really good couples therapy, people get to understand each other at a deeper level that they experienced in mutual vulnerabilities. They know their hearts even more than they did before. And that can happen across the political divide too.
Zach: Yeah, it seems like you were saying, trying to do this for organizations or politicians, the very nature of politics can get in the way of honesty. And in the way you were saying, it’s like we don’t really expect politicians to really just come out and say, “Here’s what I really feel about the people on my own side,” kind of thing. How do you see the work of Braver Angels, that that introspective and group citizen work depolarization de-escalation work? How do you see that bubbling up to affect broader cultural change?
Bill: Yeah. Well, this is a big part of what we’re thinking about these days. We are increasingly networking with organizations that have big memberships as some big churches, other secular membership organizations to see if we can, with them, create a kind of cultural force– cultural forces have been on the direction of polarization– and see if we can create something that pushes back against it. That’s really a big focus of what we’re doing now is the sort of lateral spread of saying that we have a problem in the country. And this is actually the beginning of change for a couple. The problem isn’t just you, it isn’t just, “I have a problem with you.” Because that’s where we are in our polarized state, the Reds and Blues. The problem is the other side to say, “We have a problem around dissension, division, and we are paralyzed. We can hardly run our governments and our families are hurt by this division.” And so the division, the polarization becomes the problem, not the other side. That’s the kind of cultural seating we’re interested in. And then we work with elected officials increasingly now too. When they do things that are visible like forming a new caucus, and this happened recently in the New Hampshire state legislature where we’ve done considerable work, a caucus that is working on de-polarization, which is going to be getting people together socially as well as creating opportunities for other kinds of connections.
Zach: In my own work in my book Defusing American Anger and on this podcast, I think I’m more aligned with your work because I focus on the grassroots aspect of thinking. I think that in general, the more systemic ways to change the system won’t do much. And that’s not to say that… I think all the work is valuable, but I think there’s some systemic elements that make things really hard to change. For example, trying to pass legislation, the very nature of polarization means that we probably won’t agree on that legislation or whatever it is. Or trying to change things from a political or media standpoint, those systems are naturally polarizing. So I think I’m much more aligned with your work in the sense that I think we do need this cultural change into however it’s done, kind of create this force that bubbles up through the various institutions. But that’s not to say I think systemic changes or attempts to change things are not good, because I think like a lot of big problems, it just takes many people of all sorts working on the problem no matter what their approaches are.
Bill: Exactly. If we put all of our efforts into changing Congress, that’s the hardest one of all, okay? But what we do is since we work at these levels, a value of this limited work we’ve done with Congress or these limited work state legislatures is that when we publicize that, it gives people at the grassroots hope. That’s why I tell that story about that Red/Blue workshop with members of Congress. It’s not transformed Congress, okay? But it gives regular citizens some hope that their leaders, at least some of their leaders see this problem as well. So you have a civility caucus formed in a legislature somewhere, then government can signal the importance of cultural change. That’s how I see that work as part of an overall picture, as you said, but it’s not the driver.
Zach: Right, it’s all related. Because you do the grassroots work and naturally, some people with power and influence will take those ideas and do things with them. So, yeah, it’s all related, theoretically. Do you have any thoughts on, say if you had a lot of power and somebody said, “What would you change in the system?” Maybe the way social media works or some governmental structure. Do you have your own thoughts on what the most powerful levers would be, if you care to share them?
Bill: Well, when you mentioned something that could be in politics, I’ll share what the conservative representative said. This is almost in jest, but there’s a power to it. He said if he was ruling the world, he would have all members of Congress and their families stay in Washington three or four days a week in high-rise apartment buildings [laughs] and socialize with each other and let their kids play with each other. That would be an example of can we have relationships with each other. Because that, at the level of politics, and I see this in legislatures including my own in Minnesota, they never break bread together. In fact, even within their own groups, they don’t. They’re just running and running and running. And so that would be an example of a symbolically important thing as well. And then I would have the social media and the journalists, you know, the cable news folks be willing to take a hard look at the way in which their business model is based on spreading outrage with their outrage machines. It would be tricky to do, but to say, “Hey, we’re contributing to the problem, and what can we do within the limits of First Amendment and so on to not make our money off creating more stereotypes and outrage?”
Bill: Yeah, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. Are there any things you’d like to throw in here that we haven’t touched on?
Bill: The last thing I’d like to say is that I would encourage listeners to do the same thing with their political beliefs and political alliances that we talked about at the beginning of our conversation. And that is in an intimate relationship when there are chronic problems, to assume that both parties are contributing to it if not equally in some meaningful way. And to try to take that attitude on. Certainly, my Braver Angels experience has helped me do that much more than I used. To take on a systemic and humble approach to looking at political division and to try to de-stereotype. I guess I’ll end through this one. I borrowed something of John Gottman, and it’s The Four Horsemen of negative communication; stonewalling, contempt, and so on. I’ve done that for Braver Angels. The Four Horsemen of Polarization; stereotyping, dismissing, ridiculing, and contempt. Stereotyping, dismissing, ridiculing, and contempt, The Four Horsemen of Polarization. I am suggesting they reside in each of us, and something each of us can do just as if we’re in a relationship, we can examine our tendency to stereotype, to dismiss, to ridicule, and hold in contempt the 70-plus million people who vote differently from us. That’s something we can all do on our own around this political relationship that is crucial for the future of our country.
Zach: That was one reason I wrote my “Defusing American Anger” book is trying to get… One of the goals there is because I’m on the more liberal side, is trying to get liberals to examine their role in the equation. And part of that is in “The Anatomy of Peace” book, which I thought was a great conflict resolution book. He talks about how we can feel that we’re very right in a conflict, which in any conflict, most people feel that they’re the right ones, right? But even if we feel certain that we’re the right ones, there’s ways that we can be wrong in how we relate to other people and how we view them and how we interact with them. There’s ways to, as the book puts it, for our hearts to be either at war or at peace with people, even when we very much disagree with them. Even when we’re theoretically actually at war with them, our thoughts and views of them can be very different, more generous or more contemptuous. Yeah, I think being willing to examine one’s role in the equation of a relationship, whether that’s a personal relationship or our national relationships, is key to it. Yeah.
Bill: On that point, just one more point that one of the things I’ve learned in my work with Braver Angels is to not assume that a strong policy difference translates to our core values and motivational difference. You may be for charter schools, for de-emphasizing traditional public schools, parent vouchers, support for religious schools that would be more conservative view. And I might be saying, “No, this is going to undermine public education and further fracture the country and jeopardize the educational prospects of children.” One of the things I’ve learned is not to assume that because I think your policies are going to harm children, that you are callous. That you don’t care about children, or in fact that you’re happy to undermine them for the sake of your own ideological or political goals. Then you become a moral monster to me. And how do we actually engage in constructive relationships to try to create policy? And so, not to assume motives underneath strong policy differences is an important thing that I’ve learned.
Zach: Well, this has been great, Bill. Thanks a lot for joining me. I’m a big fan of your work, and thanks from me and the country.
Bill: It was a pleasure and an honor for me to talk with you about all these important things. So, thank you as well.
Bill: That was a talk with Bill Doherty, relationship therapist and co-founder of the political depolarization group, Braver Angels. You can learn more about his therapy work at the thedohertyapproach.com. His last name is D O H E R T Y. You can follow Bill on Twitter @billdoherty, you can learn more about the group Braver Angels at braverangels.org.
Something I think about a good amount is the question: what do we want people to do to help with the mission of depolarization? Let’s say we’ve convinced an American citizen of the importance of reducing our divides, what do we want that person to do? What are the levers we want to pull to help change the culture?
To me, if I had to boil it down to a single idea, I think it’s this: asking people to criticize and push back on unreasonably divisive rhetoric/behavior amongst people who are politically similar to them (and I specifically focus on ‘politically similar’ here due to how hard it is to influence an outgroup, and due to research showing the benefits of ingroup dissent, like we discussed). There are many ways that such pushback can manifest: for example, informal conversation, posting on social media, all the way up to pundits and politicians pushing back in more official ways, like writing books and legislation, and on to entertainment media, TV and movies and fiction). It will take the form of more people, across the board, in many organizations and walks of life, talking more about the problem of polarization and working on that problem by pushing back against it, in many ways.
After our talk, I emailed Bill to ask him if he’d agree with that ideas. He said the following:
I would say two things: a) begin to practice non-judgmental curiosity about the views of people on the other side, trying to see the world as they see it and not as you think they see it; and b) your idea: trying to tone down divisive rhetoric among people who agree with you on the issues.
So that was cool to get Bill’s thoughts on that. I think it’s an important thing to align on, because it helps us focus a bit more on the practical things we’re trying to do in this area. It can help remind us of what we are asking people for.
Bill added that Braver Angels has an effective workshop called Depolarizing Within, available on their website. I’ll include a link to that from the entry for this episode on my behavior-podcast.com website.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com. If you’d like to support my work, you can sign up for a premium ad-free subscription to this podcast, and get a few other perks with that.
If you want to learn more about polarization, and about depolarization efforts, you can check out the site for my book Defusing American Anger, which is at www.american-anger.com. On that site I have a compilation of a lot of books about polarization, so it’s just a generally good resource for people who want to look into the subject more. And I have a lot of past episodes on the topic of polarization dynamics.
Thanks for listening.