I recently did an online course called Metaphysics and Mystery, which encouraged us to explore life’s big questions: Why are we here? Does life have any meaning? What is reality?
It was a brilliant course. One of our pieces of homework was to take an opinion we hold very strongly, and really try to understand the opposite point of view. If you are passionate about climate activism, read all the websites that say it’s a hoax. If you hate Trump, read the One America News Network or Fox News.
I texted my friend Edward, who is pro-Brexit, for some recommended reading. When I told my friend Melissa Abecassis about it, she said, ‘You know someone who voted for Brexit?! I don’t know anyone. I’d love to meet him. Can we organise a dinner?’
The idea evolved into the Brexit Empathy Dinner. I invited two friends who voted for Brexit and two for Remain. The aim was to find points of agreement and to understand each other’s perspectives.
I think one of the reasons we’re so bored of Brexit is how futile and immature the ‘discussions’ about it are. The subtext is always, ‘If you disagree with me, you must be stupid, ignorant, insane or evil.’
Here is a classic Twitter exchange:
Brexiteer: Remainers are evil and destructive.
Remainer: Brexiteers are deluded, evil and destructive.
It’s actually got so extreme that MPs are receiving threats of murder, rape and other violence over their position on Brexit.
It’s painful and ugly to see. And it doesn’t just happen with this issue, it’s everywhere. Look at Trump lovers vs. Trump haters:
Trump supporters: Hilary is evil.
Hillary supporters: Trump is evil.
Then there are the climate activists vs. people who disagree with them:
Climate activists: anyone who doesn’t act is stupid, ignorant and/or evil.
Anti-climate activists: people who act like that are insane, destructive, hypocritical and stupid.
Of course, there have always been people disagreeing on opposite sides of debates. But there is a growing sense that we are becoming more polarised, and there’s even some data to support it.
Dr Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, argues this in his excellent Tedx Talk on polarisation:
In just 13 years, the gap between the views of Democrats and Republicans has widened significantly.
It seems clear to me that the solution to all of this is more empathy between people who disagree. Easier said than done! So what did we do?
How we made peace between Brexiteers and Remainers
We set up a structure that led to a miracle: a Brexit discussion with people on both sides of the debate, with absolutely no tension. Zero. And everyone felt respected and understood.
This is how we did it.
Step 1: How are you feeling?
To avoid this dehumanisation, we started with a check-in about how everyone was feeling in general, and about the dinner. Two people said they were feeling — or had been feeling — a bit of anxiety, which was great because it was a vulnerable and humanising thing to say.
Step 2: What really matters to you?
Each person had two minutes to talk about what is really important to them in general, and not just in relation to Brexit. People talked about friends, family, community, health, happiness, financial wellbeing, fairness — there was lots of agreement!
Step 3: Tell me your perspective
Each person got two minutes to say why they thought Brexit was a good or bad thing for the world. For example, the first Brexiteer said that it had led to a decentralisation of the financial system, away from London and out to the rest of Europe. He believed this was good for the stability of the global financial system and for these other areas, which would start to be less affected by ‘brain drain’ to London.
Step 4: What did you like about what you heard?
Normally, in a discussion, when someone makes a point you disagree with, you reply by refuting it. Instead, they each had to say something they appreciated about what they had just heard — sometimes the clarity of the explanation, the global perspective, or the personal story. And they often said, ‘I agree!’
Step 5: Clarifying questions:
In the case of the first Brexiteer, the two Remainers asked him questions with the aim of fully understanding his perspective. Again, no arguing against.
Step 6: What did you hear?
The Brexiteer then had to sum up his key point in a sentence or two, and the Remainers had to say what they heard. We then asked the Brexiteer, ‘Do you feel understood?’, and he said he did.
We then repeated this process for each of the other three participants.
What did the others think?
The other Brexiteer thought that the EU was bad for our British democracy and autonomy as a nation. He said that if all MPs vote for something in the UK, it will be passed as a law, but that even if all the British MEPs vote for something in the EU, it may well not be passed because of all the other countries involved.
One Remainer said that, as a Belgian, he had always been brought up to support the EU — flawed though it is — as a way to secure peace throughout Europe. Before the EU, there were wars for hundreds of years in Europe, but since the countries’ political and economic interests have been intertwined, we’ve had peace.
The other Remainer is an international relations researcher. She argued that size matters on the international stage, and if we are to have an influence on global politics (especially with regard to the rising power of China), we need to be part of the EU.
Britain’s economy is a fifth of the size of China’s, whereas the EU’s is second only to the US.
It was beautiful to see that everyone could understand each other’s perspectives as being valid. I’ve never seen that before in a Brexit discussion.
One person said ‘It’s clear we all want the same thing, we just have different ideas about how to get there.’ We had reached a point from which progress could be made. Before, there were only two options: Brexit or Remain. Now we could imagine moving forward, keeping in mind that everyone wanted the same things: a diversified economy, peace and democracy, and a strengthened position on the world stage.
I really think polarisation is the biggest issue of our times. We can’t move forward with any of our pressing problems until we stop fighting each other and start understanding each other.
The dinner made it clear to me that Parliament, social media, radio and TV formats are not set up for empathy — they are set up for conflict. It’s about winning the argument. We had to put a lot of intention, space and structure in place to create the conditions for empathy, but in the end it was so much more productive.
Our vision is to have people holding these dinners all over the world, in their own home, with people they disagree with. Perhaps you could host one?
Can we help you break through conflict?
Finally, if you are embroiled in a conflict at work, we can use our skills to help you. This process doesn’t just apply to politics. Friction in the workplace can cause stress, anxiety and sleepless nights. Get in touch if you would like support.
Originally published at http://www.wellbeingcapitalpartners.co.uk.