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  • Becky Foreman

Tribal Brains and Kumquats

I saw a fascinating video today that explained why arguments so often go south. In a nutshell, our primitive brains are hardwired to protect our “tribe” which I would describe as those who share our attitudes, beliefs and values, from something as simple as a sports team (go SPARKS!) to complex philosophical issues. This protective instinct overcomes rational thought, and often causes us to throw logic out the window. When someone tries to challenge us with “facts” our “tribal brain” kicks in. We tend to become increasingly defensive and our minds become more and more tightly closed. This leads to pointless conversations, heated arguments and, in the worst cases, destroyed relationships.

The video suggests one way to get through to people is to convince them you are, in some way, part of their tribe - in other words, find some small patch of common ground. This may work, in some cases, but in the heat of argument it is pretty tough.

I propose another solution, one that I have found to be highly effective in defusing potentially explosive situations. It is a technique called the “focused conversation” and it is the foundational method of Technology of Participation. This technique requires you to be willing to hold your own opinion and listen to - and hear - others. To do this, you ask very carefully thought-out questions that navigate the conversation from basic facts, through emotion, into some critical thinking and, finally, a decision or resolution. The purpose is not to change anyone’s mind or push a particular agenda, but, rather, to enable meaningful conversation that honors all perspectives, even those with which we completely disagree.

Ideally, the focused conversation is used to guide individual or group discussions that are already planned with questions designed in advance. But with training and practice, this can work in an “on-the-fly” situation just as well.

Consider this scenario: You are in the midst of a pleasant conversation with a friend when out of the blue he brings up a “hot topic” and expresses an opinion with which you completely disagree. You have a few choices. You could (a) give him your full-throated, no-holds-barred rebuttal, letting him know he is completely wrong, (b) stand quietly by and wait for the topic to pass, thus giving tacit agreement, (c) stomp away and end the friendship on the spot or (d) you could engage in a focused conversation and open a path to peaceful communication.

Here is an example of how that could work. To avoid any real-life controversy, we’ll use a made up topic: a proposed new tax on kumquats. We’ll imagine you strongly support it, and your friend Joe does not.

Joe: And then there’s the stupid “Kumquat Tax”! What incompetent hack suggested that? Most idiotic thing I have ever heard. It would be a disaster!

You: (Deep breath) I hadn’t thought of it that way. What is your understanding of this tax?

Joe: If it goes through, every time I buy kumquats I will need to pay an additional ten cents per pound to subsidize the kumquat growers.

You: What concerns you about that?

Joe: It’s going to make kumquats unaffordable for ordinary folks like me! We’ll be priced out, and only the rich will be able to buy kumquats. Typical! What will they take from us next? Rutabagas? Kohlrabi? Where will it end?

You: I can see you care deeply about this. If you don’t mind sharing, I would be interested to know when kumquats first become an important part of your life. What memories or associations with kumquats do you have?

Joe: Well, it started when I was just a boy. My grandmother would make me stewed kumquats every year on my birthday and at Christmas. It was a special treat, just for me. I loved my grandmother. And what she could do with a ‘quat! Every time I eat one, it takes me right back to my childhood.

You: Those are great memories. I can see why you love kumquats so much. So, what do you think the reason is behind this proposed tax?

Joe: I guess the government is trying to improve kumquat farming by teaching growers how to grow them without pesticides. I get that. I just don’t think I should have to pay for it.

You: I know there is a lot of controversy around this issue. Ultimately, what outcome would you like to see?

Joe: Well, I don’t want to see the government sticking its hand in my wallet again!! I just want to be able to keep enjoying my kumquats.

You: Thank you for talking to me about this. I appreciate your openness and honesty. Although we have very different opinions about how to achieve it, we both ultimately want the same result —- safe and affordable kumquats. Hopefully that’s what we’ll get, regardless of how we get there. Now, how about those Sparks?

Of course this conversation is unrealistically simplistic, but you get the general idea. Ideally, your friend will mirror your conversation and ask you similar questions so that you can both be heard. But even if he does not, you will still open the door to continuing communication, and perhaps find that little patch of common ground. And that in itself is as valuable as a bowl of stewed kumquats at Christmas!

To learn more about this method, join me at an upcoming training! For information about classes visit:

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