Polarized Thinking is a cognitive error that is a close cousin to over-generalization and filtering. This error is very common in our political culture. “Polarized thinking” involves forcing complex issues into “either/or” pairings. This forced pairing then encourages debate between which of the paired options is better and discourages exploration of the information, experiences, or values behind those options. The forced pairing also constrains both the generation of new options and the discussion of the options in between the the forced pair.
Polarized thinking sounds like this: “We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It’s black and white, all or nothing. You’re either with us or against us.” (2002 quote attributed to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA in Washington Post article “True Believers” by Achenbach, Higham and Horowtiz, reprinted in the Columbia Daily Tribune 1/27/2013), or this: “What”s more important – our children or an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby?” (quote attributed to President Obama, in MSNBC blog post “How to Get an F from the NRA”, 4/16/2013).
So what can you do when you hear polarized thinking? Sometimes a speaker will moderate a polarizing statement if the statement is gently reflected back, emphasizing the polarizing elements (“so as you see it right now it’s all or nothing, us v. them, and nothing in between?”). If the speaker does offer a modification (e.g., “well yes, at least on this issue”, “it is as long as they insist on . . .”) the opening suggested by the modification can be noted, and returned to later in the discussion.
A facilitator can also note and explore the fact that “us v. them” phrasing indicates a lack of trust or identity with others in the conversation. For example, the facilitator might say “so you see this as us v. them, right v. wrong, with no possibility of working together?” After a response the facilitator might then ask something like, “and what are some of the differences that reflect where we might place ourselves on the “us or them” continuum?” or “what are some of the things that separate “us” and “them”?” The list of responses can then be discussed and refined by the group.
We have facilitated some difficult dialogues where this approach led to very productive discussion about the “labels” each group was using, why they were used, and why various labels were offensive to those to whom they were applied. The group closed out the session listing words to use and words to avoid, and identifying a set of questions they might explore when they met again. The group referred to the list at future sessions to minimize attempts at further polarization. Ultimately the group was able to resolve the issues that had brought them together in a way that all could live with.
When speakers are polarized, it can also be helpful to use invitational questions. Invitational questions invite the group to explore and choose options for continuing the conversation. Examples of invitational questions include, “what might we discuss next?” or “if it’s us v. them, where do you see the discussion going next?”, or “are there experiences or other information you might share that would help others to understand about why you feel so strongly about this issue?” Again, you would want to get input from several speakers, and summarize the range of thoughts provided. After reviewing you would again ask the group to help define the next step.
If you have planned for multiple sessions, you might at this point consider assigning the group “homework” that will help them think about what they have heard and how the issue might be approached in future sessions. It will be easier to think of a productive “homework” assignment if you have evaluated potential areas of impasse and how those might be approached, before you meet with a group. In any assignment though it is important to reflect the actual discussions that have incurred within the group and use open questions. When the group reconvenes, a review of the homework can be used to re-engage the group in discussion.