In this Bridges Across Politics series, we’ve seen how to lay a foundation for civilized political discussion with small Tortoise Steps and by developing a Grounding Trigger. We discussed the Listen, Pause, Paraphrase skill.

Now we move on to introducing our ideas to others. All the skills for doing so have a common denominator. They enable what I call my “Silver Rule”: Avoid or minimize wrong making.

Humans are biologically wired to try to be right. We resist when someone indicates they think we’re wrong, that is, when they “make us wrong.”

Dick can overtly make Jane wrong by contradicting, arguing, correcting or reprimanding. Jane can indirectly imply that Dick is wrong by a should statement like “you should put in more volunteer time.” This implies that he’s not putting in enough time at present. Wrong making can even be non-verbal—heaving a sigh or rolling one’s eyes

When we feel others are trying to cast us as wrong, we instinctively push back. We actually react physiologically when we’re made wrong. The reaction is physical because the risks of wrongness are physical.

As I wrote in Bridges to Consensus:

“In prehistoric societies, wrong concepts could be life threatening. If one member of a hunting group got the signals wrong, one or more of them could be maimed or killed by the prey animal. If a member of the tribe got the rules of behavior wrong, she could be ostracized and would not likely survive alone. To our instincts, being wrong reads as a threat, and we react accordingly…

“Beginning in childhood, when someone is made wrong, they typically push back in three ways. You’re walking past the door of the family room, and hear the boings and crashes of a video game. ‘Dandelion,’ you call to your daughter, ‘I told you to do your homework. She calls back, ‘I am doing it.’ Denial is the first way of resisting wrong making.

“The next day, you walk past the room and hear the television. ‘Dandie, I told you to do your homework, and you’re watching TV.’ ‘But, Mom, I’m watching PBS. It’s educational.’ This second form of resistance is rationalization.

“Third day, same scenario, worst form of resistance: ‘Dandie, you aren’t doing your homework.’ ‘Well, I was doing it till a few minutes ago, but brother’s been out riding his bike ever since we got home from school.’ In this form of resistance, projection, little Dandelion alleviates the discomfort of being made wrong by making someone else (brother) even more wrong than she is, so she feels right by comparison. However, the person adults usually project onto is the one who made them wrong. Projection and counter-projection can easily spin out of control in a series of escalating accusations.”

Dick tells Jane her work on a project is shoddy. Jane denies, “It is not”; rationalizes, “I didn’t have enough help”; and/or projects, “At least I did something. You were supposed to help and you didn’t.”

Think back to the last time you tried to convince someone of a political view by contracting or arguing with them. What did they say? Can you see the denial, rationalization or projection in their response? Now put the shoe on the other foot. When that person contradicted your opinion, what were the first words hammering on the roof of your mouth trying to escape? Were they words of denial, rationalization or projection? What was the outcome of that conversation?

Fortunately, the hard-wired denial, rationalization or projection is sometimes temporary. The more mature and high-functioning an individual, the more quickly they move past it.

But not everyone we disagree with is mature and high functioning. And we all occasionally lose it. Why add extra hurdles, extra delays, by making people wrong?

When we practice the Silver Rule, that is, avoid or minimize wrong-making, we are more likely to be listened to and believed. We are more likely to have a civilized conversation, rather than a wrong-making duel that leaves both parties even more entrenched in their own opinions.

But when we disagree, how can we ever express our own views without making the other person wrong? Future posts in this Bridges Across Politics series will offer specific skills for doing that, so stay tuned!