Trump and Hillary. The Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, polarizing politics. Blue on black violence. Black on blue violence. Vets killing cops. Terrorist attacks. Endless mass shootings. Add to this already explosive mix, the unprecedented, unexpected election of an openly gay United Methodist Bishop and you have a recipe for potential upset. Opinions abound. So do tempers.
It got me thinking: How do we stay cool in hot times? How do we keep the lines of communication open when we honestly disagree with each other?
I’d like to offer 7 tips for keeping cool in hot times, derived from my work with emotional intelligence.
1. Assume the best about others; not the worst. I’ve received quite a bit pushback on my own recent post about the election of Karen Oliveto to the episcopacy. I assume that these colleagues care every bit as much as I do about what is right and holy and good. We’ve had some good, heart to heart conversations about our assumptions. If you catch yourself thinking that yours is the only right way—this tip will be hard.
2. Ask how questions, not why questions. Why questions put people on the defensive. How questions encourage people to think creatively. For instance: How did you arrive at this position? Not: Why do you think this way?
3. Open your ears, not your mouth. Listen to their answers. Don’t just wait for them to pause so you can slip in your rebuttals. As you listen, you might just discover more similarities between the two of you than differences. Identifying your shared humanity is an important part of staying cool in hot times.
4. Practice disagreeing without cutting others off. When it comes to hot topics, the usual response is to avoid, or to push away from another, and be done with them. Kick the dust off your heels and move on. Sometimes love actually requires us to stay connected in spite of disagreement. This is hard to do, but necessary. In the groups I lead, we encourage a wide variety of theologies and perspectives, and work at staying at the table together.
5. Fact check, fact check, fact check. Just because someone repeats a talking point, or says it louder than others, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. Dig deep. Get the facts. They’re likely more complex than you first understood. This goes for everything from presidential politics to church politics to international politics.
6. Pray for each other. Ask God what you can do to forward the Kingdom in the midst of change and upset. Ask how you can be kind toward those who misunderstand you, and do good to those whom you fear may hate you. Ask to see things from another’s perspective.
7. Resist being hijacked. Fear activates the reptilian part of our brain that’s wired for fight or flight. It can also activate the limbic part of our brain that’s wired for emotion. So intense can the emotion be, that it literally hijacks our thinking and our responses—leading us to say things we might not otherwise say, or do things we might later regret. The neocortex part of our brain is activated by higher-order thought processes like logic. So, avoid gossip, reputation-bashing, and either-or thinking. While it feels powerful in the moment, it intensifies polarization. It’s hard to take words back once they’ve been spoken. Instead – pause, breathe, pray, and see what sort of logical or creative responses you can generate.
Yes, we are in an intense time. Still, the world is probably not coming to an end. Clearly, things are changing. Rapidly. Frankly, no one is 100% happy. No one is getting 100% of what they want. How do we work together to achieve the common good? I close with the words of Bishop Ough, President of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church:
“We affirm that our witness is defined, not by an absence of conflict, but how we act in our disagreements. We affirm that our unity is not defined by our uniformity, but by our compassionate and Spirit-led faithfulness to our covenant with God, Christ’s Church and one another.”
Want to discover more about how to navigate these hot times with a cool head? Check out Creating a Culture of Renewal. This award-winning program interrupts church decline by empowering church leaders to do the impossible with people who may not necessarily see eye to eye.