Practicing the Pause

There is no doubt that we are living in some weird times. When people are deeply divided over issues that affect large groups of people, conversations can adopt the tone of “us vs. them” rather quickly. Add social media to the mix and it gets even more volatile, since social media is many people’s primary form of engagement with the wider world.

We all know that social media presents a great opportunity to engage others in meaningful discussions.  Unfortunately, there appears to be an interesting phenomenon when it comes to expressing opinions on social media amid major political controversies. Many people quickly identify themselves as being part of one side or another, lest they get mis-categorized by others or miss out on a chance to participate in the conversation.  There is no harm in that – but the problem arises when those declarations of “what side I’m on” are accompanied by boatloads of negativity and invective directed towards anyone who doesn’t agree.  (These criticisms are not pointed, by the way – there are people of all political leanings engaging in these behaviors.)

I’m not discouraging anyone from posting his/her opinions about the issues going on in the wider world. On the contrary, it’s important to engage each other in discussions about our concerns. However, I think we could all benefit from exercising a bit of restraint – in the sense of pausing for a moment before we say or post something inflammatory in a knee-jerk, automatic manner. After all, we may not have all the information we need to make a scathing judgment. (Believe me, I am just as prone to making snap judgments as the next person, so I don’t mean to convey that I’m an expert at this…far from it!)  But I have found that when I make any little effort to gain a better understand of what’s going on behind the scenes of another person’s reasoning, it helps.  No, it may not always change my opinion – it just provides a fuller picture of the rationale behind the opposing viewpoint(s), which can help all parties come to a more balanced perspective intellectually and emotionally.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that we will reach any agreement even after we honestly and openly inquire about each other’s reasoning – in contrast, perhaps it may magnify our differences even further. But there’s a solid chance that we won’t be as judgmental once we get a sense of why someone believes what they believe.  What’s more, the fact that we’ve devoted a little time and energy to simply listening to someone who doesn’t share our point of view, may open the minds of both parties just a little bit more. Think about when you’ve had a fight with someone you love – when the other person just stops and simply listens to your point of view without judging it, doesn’t it make you feel better? Doesn’t it help you calm down, even if only a little?  Who knows, sometimes we even develop more compassion and respect for one another in the process (even if it’s just a tiny bit).

It may not sound like much, but over time, practicing those small pauses of restraint may go a long way in healing the deep ideological divides that currently separate huge groups of people across the world.  That doesn’t mean that the process won’t be messy, and that there won’t be anger or sadness or disappointment or frustration along the way – emotions surrounding important issues don’t just go away, nor should they necessarily go away.  After all, emotions teach us so much about what we value.  However, the way we deal with those emotions is key, and pausing before we react may reduce any excessive emotional distress that we may experience personally and/or inflict upon others, which can help avoid unnecessary heartache.

The good news is, each and every person has a small but powerful tool to use in chipping away at the divides among us – pausing to take a few deep breaths before proceeding in our dealings with others, and during those pauses, asking ourselves whether we are seeing things as clearly as possible…and if the answer is “no” (and it often is), remembering to respectfully ask more questions to gain greater understanding, rather than immediately jumping on the confrontational negativity train.

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