The influence of a personal story is undeniable. Stories are used to sway public opinion, alter discourse, and gain advantage. Sometimes, these stories wear an invisible cloak of moral superiority; at other times, these stories are coated in curiosity, offense or longing. Occasionally, our accounts are in direct conflict with the tales of others, revealing the uniqueness and complexity of human nature.
Navigating deep division involves contemplating the stories we tell ourselves and others. Stories about what we hold most dear and why. Narratives stitched from our core values, beliefs and personal identities.
As I’ve learned through my work with Good Conflict, each story within us connects to a perspective or assumption with a revelatory understory. The stories of our viewpoints, particularly those that trap us in an “us versus them” mindset, uncover what matters most to us.
For instance, we may make a general statement that all Democrats or all Republicans are running our country to the ground. What’s underneath that overly simplified — and grossly inaccurate — argument? The understory could be about power and control or a lack of it; maybe it’s about feeling overwhelmed, or even the need to be respected and recognized. The common thread? A personal experience or encounter that shapes our worldview and our opinions.
For those of us fatigued by polarization in our society, an antidote exists: curiosity. Get curious about what’s underneath the stories you tell and the narratives of those on the other side.
We would be remiss not to inquire into our unwavering position on political issues and how we view others who don’t share our convictions. We may discover something unexpected if we challenge ourselves by asking questions when contemplating these narratives. Where do these beliefs come from? How have they changed throughout the years? How might my stance differ from others who don’t share my life experiences? What makes me think I’m right?
These aren’t easy questions — they often cause dissonance and display our flaws and inaccuracies. And that’s OK.
We also need to acknowledge that those with opposing views have understories, too. They might be like ours or show significant differences in how we envision achieving progress and change. But how would we know if we treat every disagreement as an assault and every difference as a dispute?
For those of us fatigued by polarization in our society, an antidote exists: curiosity. Get curious about what’s underneath the stories you tell and the narratives of those on the other side. There is no path forward until we can get clarity on what we’re really fighting about and why. Let’s not forget our shared humanity; instead, let’s use personal narratives as a catalyst for learning and growth rather than for discord in political discourse.
Hélène Biandudi Hofer is a journalist and the founder of Good Conflict