Polarising conversations: how can we bridge the gaps?

When I first became a management consultant, my new line manager told me on my induction day never to discuss sex, religion or politics when I was with a client. All of these topics have the potential to be polarising conversations, with differences of opinion prevalent and the potential to offend others. Polarisation seems to be a characteristic of politics, in particular, these days. In the world of dogs, we have a long list of polarising topics including raw feeding, vaccination and non-recognised colours, to name just 3.

Some people don’t discuss controversial topics in an effort to avoid the seemingly inevitable confrontations and hurt feelings. Others take delight in these conversations, particularly on social media where they can hide behind a keyboard and write things that they may not be prepared to say to someone’s face. At its worst, it degenerates into online trolls.

An article in Psychology Today (2018) suggests that polarities are not “problems” to be solved, but rather they are situations that must be handled. It said: The litmus test for whether or not you’re facing a problem or a polarity is found in the answer to the question, “Does this situation have a solution?” If it does, it’s a “problem;” if it doesn’t, it’s a “polarity.” “Polarities” can be frustrating divides because they are basically a pair of interdependent and mutually essential values that both must be considered when decisions are being made. If diverse ideas were just a “problem” to be solved, it would make things a lot simpler in many ways. Unfortunately, opposing perspectives are often polarities and these require a much more mature and responsible treatment.

Is CNR a polarity or a problem?

Over the past couple of years, the Kennel Club has been working with breeds that were concerned about rising numbers of dogs being registered as “Colour Not Recognised” (CNR). This was also discussed in a forum meeting held at Stoneleigh in July 2019. There are some breeds where CNR colours/patterns exist naturally as a feature of the genetics of the breed. In others, it appears that new colours/patterns have been introduced as a result of cross-breeding because they were, historically, never evident in the breed. One of the problems originally raised was that it was impossible to identify and trace dogs’ colours in pedigrees if they were grouped under CNR and this undermined the purpose and integrity of the registration system. CNR also, apparently, gave a certain cachet to these dogs and made them more marketable by unscrupulous, commercial, breeders who have little concern for health or breed preservation. As a result of consultation, the approach reached has been to divide registration colours into “Breed Standard” and “Non Breed Standard”.

While the move to BS and NBS colour lists may have resolved some of the perceived problems, it has left a clear polarity: at one end of the spectrum is the view that NBS colours should not be registered at all and at the other is the view that the registration system exists to record pedigreed dogs. Arguably, that polarity has always existed and boils down to fundamental differences of opinion as to the definition of “the problem”.

How can we bridge the gaps?

Similar polarised positions exist across a range of dog health and welfare issues, including the health of brachycephalic breeds, breeding practices and approaches to dog training. 

The Psychology Today article says When you are speaking to someone who holds different values or holds a different political persuasion or has divergent ideas about major social justice issues or just sports and taxes, you just can’t “assume” that your view is right and their views are wrong. You have to accept that sometimes you’re going to have to “agree to disagree.”

I have written before about how giving people “more facts” is rarely successful as a means of influencing them. Scientists often default to a “deficit model” for communicating science. The assumption is that people don’t yet know enough about a topic such as breed health. The solution? Simply tell people the facts, thereby addressing their knowledge “deficit” and increasing their support for the science and the evidence. However, there is research evidence that people’s past experiences and underlying beliefs often act as a perceptual filter that can affect how they react to scientific data. If lecturing people won’t work, we need to take time to understand how the other person’s experiences and beliefs have shaped their current (opposite) views.

We know that people are resistant to persuasion when they feel pressured to admit their pre-existing knowledge and views are wrong. This is particularly so if it also challenges their self-identity and we have seen examples of this in the reactions of some breeders and judges to the emerging brachycephalic legislation outside the UK. The recent IPFD paper that called for open, respectful discussions said that “emotionally charged in-fighting or proclamations of being ‘at war’ with others weaken collective efforts to support the health and welfare of dogs”

Sometimes, engaging in personal conversations away from the polarising topic can be a useful starting point. A more empathetic approach is key to understanding how another person feels, no matter how different their views may be from our own. Active listening is one of the key tools for a constructive conversation. If you can begin to see the world through their eyes, you can then shape the conversation accordingly. 

Learning from journalists’ conversations

Some really interesting research was commissioned by the Solutions Journalism Network to look at ways in which journalists could cover controversial issues more effectively. Their goal was to help understand how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in indignation. They concluded that, instead of focusing on each (or just one) “side” of a story, adding complexity and widening the conversation can actually be helpful. There are 5 powerful questions to ask:

  • Why is this personally important to you?
  • Which life experiences have shaped your views?
  • For those who disagree with you, what would you like them to understand about you?
  • What do you want to understand about those with whom you disagree?
  • Imagine that you got what you wanted in regards to this issue, how would your life change?

These days, it seems that people are so used to being combative, especially with someone who shares opposing views. They don’t expect you to listen to them, they expect a fight, not to be asked “can you tell me more?”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, by asking open questions and listening, better communication happens and we end up closer together instead of further apart.

Beware: prejudice is a great time-saver; it enables you to form opinions without having to gather the facts. [Anon.]