“What do you do?” Ken asked me. I explained to him that I research how people communicate and think about ‘hot topics’ because the polarization between groups of people in society is getting worse and so many people are losing relationships and family connections over disagreements. He said “OMG! Yael you nailed it, people are so emotional and you just can’t talk to them!”
Ken is in his mid-40’s, a successful businessman, smart, charming, has been practising mindfulness for many years and is a strong believer in vaccinations. He was telling me about a conversation with his friend who is an anti-vaxxer. For 10 years, they’ve been close, they did lots of things together, playing, biking, outdoor activities and had good, deep conversations.
But, just a few months ago (pre-Covid), they had a tense conversation which caused him to almost lose interest in the friendship. “Is that the end of your relationship?” I asked,
“I’m distancing myself from him right now,” he said.
Ken took it to heart when his anti-vax friend told him quite passionately and somewhat aggressively that if he had kids and would vaccinate them it would be like putting a bullet in their head. Ken felt attacked. “It was so intense and out of proportion!” He cried out. “I was afraid to respond”.
“Would you really give up on a good friend just because you think differently on vaccinations?”
“I lost all respect for him. If he can believe in something he reads on Facebook and makes important decisions based on that… I lost respect for his ability to discern the truth.
I questioned his intelligence because his decision isn’t based on data and research. He is influenced by social media that believes in false science.”
“Did you have any disrespect for him before that last conversation as well or it all came about with this one conversation?”
“No, not before, I always appreciated him. But, my feelings had changed in that conversation. I had this disgusting feeling in my guts and felt uncomfortable. I believe anti-vaxxers are stupid. They allow themselves to be manipulated by the mass media.”
I hear this a lot. People believe a friend or loved one is a rational and decent human being. Then they have a conversation about a triggering topic and suddenly they perceive the same person to be a morally corrupt and raving lunatic. What’s going on?
“Have you asked him what he is basing his information on? What is the reason he is so emotional about it?”
“No way! I’m not interested in hearing any of it. He is so emotional! I can’t talk to him. I can’t talk logically with him. He has manic intense emotions on why vaccines don’t work. I just feel like ‘I’m right, you are wrong and I don’t want to listen to your opinions and engage the conversation.’”
“So, you are not interested in any conversation with him now after he shared with you his intense concerns and fears about vaccinations?”
“I’m more clear today on who I am and who I want to be surrounded with. I want to be surrounded with logical, intelligent, open-minded and not emotional people!” He said with deep conviction. “I’m going to move on and let go of old relationships that don’t work for me anymore.”
Our world is drowning in polarization driven in part by social media that helps us surround ourselves with like-minded people. It’s comfortable, but in seeking that comfort we tend to distance ourselves from opposing opinions and people who are otherwise important to us.
“How do you know you are right? What are you basing your information on?” I asked him.
He was uncomfortable with the question, looked at me and said, “I feel weird not knowing which side you are on…” but then continued.
“I don’t have any data or information, but I believe vaccinations helped the world. The majority of vaccinations are working and saving lives. They might have some side effects but it is the outlier. “The anti-vaxxers will emotionalize that outlier and focus on the rare cases of people getting hurt by vaccinations. Anti-vaxers don’t look at the statistics! They don’t look at the data!”
I can hear he’s very passionate about this and press on.
“What makes this so emotional for you?”
“I feel he’s violating what I consider to be true, my foundations. But I’m not interested in doing the research to prove I’m right.”
“So, you don’t have data and you don’t want to do the research, but you feel very strongly that you are right,” I smiled, “Can you say more about that?”
“I believe the earth is round, that we breathe oxygen and that vaccinations work! It’s fundamental. I don’t need to check it. I was vaccinated as a kid, my parents loved me and they vaccinated me. I never questioned that. This is how I grew up.”
At this point, he paused for a few long moments and looked at me tilting his head. It seemed something was clicking in his mind. Something was shifting.
“I’m… I’m not entirely confident about the information. I feel a sense of emotional rejection to even read about it… because… what if I’m wrong? What if I find out that he is right? That I’m the emotional one here… that I’m the one who never questioned his own beliefs. What if I become be part of them? Those crazy fringe groups. I feel resistance to be in that camp. I feel comfortable where I am, in the majority camp!”
Ken took a deep breath and shook his head. A more complete picture seemed to be forming in his mind.
“Wow, I’m realizing now it’s my pride speaking. It’s kind of us vs. them feeling. I want to part of the group that I consider to be better, stronger, bigger. In so many areas of my life, I belong to the minority, and I hold on to the belief in vaccinations just because it feels better to be in that group.”
I called him a few days later. This was a huge shift to experience in the course of a single conversation and I wondered how he was feeling and whether anything changed in his relationship with his old buddy.
“I realized I was holding a strong position, I was judgmental, emotional and overly defensive, which came from a deep fear of belonging to the wrong group. I was distancing myself from my friend. I was the one whose opinions were not checked or questioned. I don’t want to be that guy who loses friendships for this. I care about him. He is a really good friend. I almost lost him.
I feel softer. I feel like I undid a knot. I called him and shared this with him.
I don’t have a sense of disrespect for him anymore.
I don’t have a sense of us vs. them anymore.
I feel less emotional about it.”
Of all the conversations I’ve had with people on both sides of a conflict, Ken’s shift was the quickest. He’s been practising and teaching meditation for over 20 years and radical shifts in perception aren’t new to him. Still, like most of us, he was blind to his own biases in this case.
I was honored to be present for the transformation and I hope this helps you, the reader, examine your own strongly held beliefs and see if maybe, just maybe, you hold on to them a little bit too strongly.