Winning Hearts and Minds- Finding Common Ground in an Age of Extremes

For most of my adult life I have been engaged in activist politics. Simultaneously, I have been interested in the study of consciousness. I have pursued these interests through academic study- degrees in history, philosophy, counseling, and clinical practice. For more than 35 years,I have pursued a career as a counselor and professor. What follows is part of a work in progress wherein I am attempting to outline both a theoretical and clinical approach to what I term, ‘ a psychotherapy of engagement.’

The title of this short presentation begins with the phrase, “winning hearts and minds.” I have chosen this well-used often cliched term because I have observed that for both individuals and society the heart (our emotions) and minds are often muddled and confused as well as in conflict. Simply put, we barely know what the hell we are about nor what we are doing moment to moment. We are triggered by outside factors and we react without thinking and then the mess begins.

This goes on not just on an individual level but on a societal level as well. Some examples as told to me in individual counseling sessions by clients and by students in my graduate level multicultural and diversity class:

1. A 60 year old white man is walking down a street in TriBeCa and coming towards him is a well dressed twenty something African American woman having a relationship with her smart phone totally unaware of the world around her – she is within a breath of the Man and he puts out his hand to prevent her from walking into him. She stops and screams, ” take your hand off me,white bastard!” She then calmly goes back to her phone and walks on.He comes to session the next day and relates this story in tears and says,” I marched with Martin Luther King and spent a summer in the South organizing- what did I do? She hates me because I am white. I am so fed up with all this political correctness – I have had it!”

2. Twenty something graduate student in my multicultural and diversity class uses the term “man-up” when discussing counseling issues involving gay men. He is bombarded by criticism by several other students who take offense at the term he has used. They accuse him of being prejudiced and biased. He physically turns into himself and shuts down.

3. Client who is long time feminist and socialist comes into session and tells me she is totally depressed with the direction that the left is taking. She relates an incident that happened to her while on the subway: she was wearing a Hillary button and two men came up to her and started berating her and telling her how could she support Hillary – they are wearing Bernie tee shirts. She described feeling betrayed and unable to relate to what was once her affiliation- the left.

4. A white grad student in the Multicultural class asks to speak to me after class- he poses the following question after 2 months of classes: ” I still don’t get why we need this course?!” All of the above incidents demonstrate that the outside world of politics: micro aggressions, political correctness, trigger points, safe spaces- creeps into our psyches for better or worse. My clinical observations conclude that in far too many instances these attempts to alter what is deemed ‘ not right thinking’ backfire because they resort to shame and blame. We do not “win hearts and mind’ in this way.

How do we find common ground in a time of such polarized thinking?- everything is seen in either/or terms rather than either/and. In psychological terms, as a society we are having difficulty living with ambiguity – with uncertainty. The world is in flux and change is happening whether we like it or not. Our brains are hard wired to deal with uncertainty- in more extreme situations where there is danger – with a fight/flight/ freeze response. We are continually seeking safety and we will harness our drives- power, ambition, whatever it takes to insure our security. When times are good and we experience a modicum of safety, we choose to affiliate with a more widely diverse network of people but when times are too scary and the changes are experienced as major upheavals that threaten our identities then we resort to more primitive affiliative groupings by retreating from more universal identifications and seeking our tribal affiliations: sex,gender, race, class, sect, religion, political ideologies,etc. These are used as protective armor against the impending threats. At such times, the need for conforming to the group’s needs and ideas stifles individuality – there is a danger of ‘groupthink.’

We are living in such times. As progressives and self-identified leftists ( whatever that means) we need to take a very hard look at the ways in which ‘group thinking’ may cut us off from connecting with ourselves and the wider world. How are we alienating each other and others?

Such questions come up in psychotherapy as well – when teaching students counseling skills and practices, the following concepts are emphasized:

1. Know thyself- what are your biases, assumptions and attitudes? How are they brought into your work?

2. Learn to listen- what is your client saying? What are their concerns?

3. Meet the client where they are – your are not there to change them you are there to teach them skills that will enable them to find their truths.

4. Recognize that we are all different and that we need to understand that life experiences lead to different perceptions of any given situation.

5. Get your ego out of the equation.

6. Don’t shut people down with your agenda for ‘helping’

7. Help people learn the skills of accommodation and compromise when life requires them- to live a ‘good enough’ life.

8. Ask yourself as well as your clients – “what is more important to you- being right or connecting?” The skills of bridge making is an art to be cultivated,

9. Identify the challenge confronting the client.

10. Co-create a plan.

11. Develop and create a scaffolding (structure) to execute the plan

12. Learn from mistakes and try again!

The above are the building blocks of an ‘engaged psychotherapy’. I feel that they are also a path to an ‘engaged politics.’ They can be applied to organizing and outreach. We can find common ground when we can admit that we don’t have all the answers nor know all the questions. By working together and truly listening to each other and enjoying our different perspectives, we may find workable solutions, a little at a time.

Change takes time and effort – as an experiment when you get home after this conference, do the following – whether you shower or prefer a bath take it a different time than you usually do- what does this feel like? Is there resistance? Do you do it? Whatever the outcome, you will come to see how routine trumps change- how habit is a trance that deadens consciousness and choice. If this change is difficult to embrace and you are just one person, now imagine how difficult it is for groups, organizations, governments, cultures and societies to change-


“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step- Lao Tzu.

Irene Javors, LMHC- May, 2016