3 Tips To Avoid Othering In A Divisive Environment

My kids and I have always enjoyed super hero comic books. The idea I’ve always bristled against, though, is the idea of a “bad guy.” In well-developed fictional worlds, knowing a villain’s own story from their perspective can change how you think of them. You may still see their decisions as selfish, dangerous, or harmful, but you also understand their humanity, their nuances, their fears, and what led them to make those decisions. It’s an easy short-hand to look at someone’s actions and ascribe a label to the whole person – “good guy,” “bad guy,” “hero,” or “villain,” but to do so makes sweeping generalizations and judgements.

The same is true in real life, and in this politically-divisive era, it’s common. It’s easy to apply labels to people – “angry,” “liberal,” “intense,” “right-wing,” “good,” “idiot,” “evil,” “leader,” “difficult to work with” – and it’s a lot harder to put those labels aside and look for the nuance that makes each of us human. In short, it’s easier to engage in “othering” than to strive for understanding and honoring people’s unique experiences and contributions.

Why do we “other” so easily? The reasons are complex. Our brains are trying to help us understand the world around us by giving us clues to keep us safe. They are also trying to help us understand who we are by reinforcing what we aren’t. We feel safer in our groups and our groups are stronger when we know who is “in” and who is “out.” The growth of the internet has led to more tribalism as we connect with others “like us,” but with that comes more awareness of what makes those “others” not like us.

So how can we work to avoid othering in this divisive time?

This Week’s Tips:

  1. Listen to the labels you give people. Whether in your family life or your workplace, listen to the words you use – both out loud and in your head – to describe people. Anytime you hear yourself say “[this person] is…” take note of what comes next. If this isn’t a term this person uses to self-identify, then chances are, there’s some judgement attached. Take note of that, and keep track of how many times during the day you use labels.
  2. Look for nuance in people’s own story. Ask open-ended questions to people with whom you have an existing relationship, to get to understand or know them better. For public figures for whom you have a strong reaction, read more of their own story to get a sense of their humanity, and/or ask people you know who support that figure to help you understand their position. This isn’t to change your own views, but rather to shape them and add nuance as you remind yourself of the humanity in others.
  3. Spend time away from devices and the bombardment of information. Our brains are constantly making short-cut biased decisions based being able to only consciously process around 50 of the 11 million bits of information they take in every second. The more we can step away from technology and still our minds, the more we can make conscious aware choices to move away from othering and towards understanding and honoring people’s unique experiences and contributions.

Try any or all of these this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group. We’d love to hear from you!

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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