When studying for my master’s degree, part of the conversation was on what causes conflict in families. The same causes can apply to society as a whole. What’s the problem? When there are insiders and outsiders, it becomes one person’s needs against another’s. As a couples and family therapist, I look at where the common ground is and help to reframe conflicts away from an “us vs them mentality” into “How can we solve this problem together?”
The idea of “us vs them” instead of working together is often a matter of perspective and context. In many situations, collaboration and working together can lead to more positive outcomes than a confrontational approach. Cooperation and understanding among individuals or groups with different perspectives, backgrounds, or interests can lead to innovative solutions, mutual benefit, and a more harmonious society.
If someone perceives that a need of theirs is threatened, then there is a tendency to reject completely the other person’s perspective. When we are triggered, our body responds on a physiological level, and our fight or flight response is activated. People stop considering nuance and start reacting with their protective instincts.
The us vs. them approach often comes up on emotional topics such as immigration, abortion, race, sex, and gender. How to treat and support clients with gender dysphoria has become an especially high-conflict and divisive issue. If someone raises concerns about gender-affirming policies or care, there’s a tendency to label them as transphobic instead of discussing the concern that was raised. This breaks us up into camps of insiders and outsiders instead of a society that works together.
In schools, the “us vs. them” approach is seen in schools that have adopted the policy not to notify parents if their child requests to change their name or pronouns. This policy starts from the position of child vs parent. It assumes that parent involvement will be unhelpful and could even be harmful. In Canada, some provinces have changed to a policy that facilitates children disclosing gender changes to their parents. The first policy has the child on a journey that progressively moves them away from their family because the child is exploring their gender identity in secret. The second policy allows for the possibility that parents will join their child as they explore their gender identity.
While there are certainly instances where conflicts of interest or values may arise, the general principle of seeking common ground and finding ways to collaborate is often more constructive than fostering an adversarial mindset. Trans activists argue that parental involvement is harmful to trans youth and dismiss parental concerns. However, the rise in detransitioners suggests that parents, who have knowledge of their child, may have well-founded concerns regarding their child’s gender confusion.
Promoting open communication, empathy, and a willingness to find compromise can contribute to creating a more inclusive and collaborative environment. It’s essential to recognise shared goals and interests that can unite people, even when there are differences. Ultimately, the mindset of “us vs them” can be limiting, whereas fostering a sense of unity and cooperation tends to lead to more positive outcomes for everyone involved. In various aspects of life, whether it’s in personal relationships, communities, or on a global scale, the ability to work together and find common goals is crucial for progress and well-being.
In my work with couples and families, I have seen the benefits of helping people create space to disagree. Popular culture seems to suggest that acceptance means agreement without question. I’d like to suggest that true acceptance and inclusion mean that people do not have to agree about everything to have a loving and compassionate relationship.
Here are some steps you can take to find common ground with people you disagree with:
- Recognise and understand your emotions. What do you feel? Do any of your values or beliefs feel threatened? What are your hopes and desires?
- Develop long-term and short-term goals. What are your motives and goals? How do these relate to your values? What are the other person’s goals? Which values help form their opinion?
- Clarify for yourself why your position is important to you. Are there other ways to pursue the same goals? Are there other ways to frame the problem?
- Consider what support you need to engage in a healthy dialogue. Therapists like myself work with individuals, pairs, or groups to help people successfully engage in dialogue. Discussing issues that feel vulnerable to us is more difficult and takes more support than an issue that isn’t as important.
- Practise active listening and empathy. To truly find common ground, it is essential to actively listen to and empathise with the other person. This involves not only hearing their words but also understanding their feelings and perspectives. By showing genuine interest in their views and acknowledging their emotions, you can create a more open and respectful environment for dialogue.
While debates on complex issues often seem intractable, there is almost always some common ground to be found if we approach them with openness, empathy, and a willingness to understand each other. By setting aside preconceived notions, making an effort to clarify goals and values, and having compassion for differing perspectives, we can move beyond an “us vs them” mentality.
Though differences may remain, when we engage in respectful dialogue, we are more likely to find areas of agreement and potential compromise. Approaching conflicts in this spirit of mutual understanding enables us to build connections and pursue collaborative solutions, rather than dividing into opposing camps. If we lead with open hearts, open minds will follow.