Books to Reduce Polarization and Enhance Constructive Debate

Aaron Burr may have sung about being “in the room where it happens” in Hamilton. In the room where that pivotal event happened, a compromise struck over a meal at Thomas Jefferson’s. (There’s a book about that! Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s. The wines, the food. Only three people. No servants present.)

In a democracy, it’s not just the famous or the influential that determine direction. It’s also all the little voices. Us. We, the People. The conversations among ordinary folks. Democracy happens in the room that is our human brain.

Most of us dream of people with opposing positions opening their minds to other viewpoints. How will we ever find ways to agree or compromise on contentious issues without the ability to debate in venues from our living rooms to the public arena?

Several books may help interested readers understand how humans arrive at their most cherished values and how humans behave. I’d suggest the following, which illuminate human behavior from a variety of perspectives.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

This one was a “mind-opener” for me. Haidt is an expert in moral psychology. He has researched this issue across the globe. A major point I took from this book is that the lobe of our brains that is responsible for “rational” thinking was the last to evolve. The other lobes evolved first and that’s where the action is in politics. We use the rational lobe as a social tool to explain our views, beliefs, and actions — what we have already decided. While he describes in detail why we have such difficulty getting along and having constructive, civil conversations, he suggests — with specific guidance — that we give it a try.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking  by Susan Cain.

Cain’s book looks at the nature of introverts and how the place of an introvert in American culture evolved over the past century. One can find introverts in surprising places, like the Harvard Business School. She presents fascinating and surprising examples of introverts. Filmmakers, CEOs, artists, inventors. The book explores the joy and challenges of the personality, even from the parenting perspective. Lots of research and great interviews.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

The authors are part of the Harvard Negotiation Project. A short, but powerful book. Valuable for parents, employers, married couples, and even parties to the world’s most challenging negotiations. So widely read, it is now translated into 15 languages.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck.

People tend to exhibit two types of mindsets: either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset believes he or she has all the skills and talents already built in. The person is then only trying to show off those talents, for accolades and approval. The growth mindset pursues learning and developing desired skills and talents. That mindset is willing to persevere to acquire skills that may not be hard-wired at birth. It is a much more expansive way of living. Lots of examples of both among the famous and accomplished.

The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Singer.

Do you have your own demons? Are your internal voices driving you nuts and thwarting your most cherished dreams? Singer takes you into your brain and then your soul, simply and clearly. He puts those inner voices into valuable perspective and helps the reader find a fresher realm. One may think it’s “touchy-feely”, but it is incredible powerful and useful. A short book that has helped me tame my inner demons.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown.

Brown leads a movement to help heal our intensely, unhealthily competitive culture. Being vulnerable is too often viewed as a weakness when in fact it can be employed out of great personal strength. And willingness to be vulnerable is the beginning of making change happen. She has a number of books out there. This is a great start. For men as well as women.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell has many books and essays out there that peal back assumptions about human behavior or illustrate neglected aspects worth understanding. Using various examples, he cautions us to be aware of how, in sliding too far down a behavioral slope, we may find ourselves beyond the ability to reverse course.